A Farmer in the Garden

I recently helped my friend, Josh, plant some seeds and starts on his farmland out in the Northeast Kingdom. Josh’s family has always produced vegetables on their small-scale farm for area farmers’ markets, but this year Josh is running the operation on his own.

When I visited Josh’s land, I got to help him plant some of the usual crops that I have in my small garden: tomatoes, squash, pumpkin, green beans… but the planting process was a little bit different here. Forget the gentle loosening of roots on the tomato starts. Just drop them a couple paces apart for the length of the field and then walk back through and quickly tuck them into the soil a few inches above the roots. And while in my small garden I planted every squash seed with an exaggerated amount of care, here we just opened up a small hole in the soil every three paces, dropped three or four seeds in, and were on our way.

It’s funny how long my friends and I took to plan and decide and gently dig up homes for plants in the small garden plot we have when I compare it to the farmers’ methods. But I guess it’s only fair; any farm must be at least 50 times the size of our garden. It wouldn’t be as big of a deal if two or three tomato plants didn’t survive on the farm since this is such a small fraction of the crop.

While I am not about to move away from the more gentle and tedious methods of the gardener, I’m glad to have a farmer friend as a resource. The next day, when Josh visited our garden, he shook his head when he saw how I, on hands and knees, meticulously plucked out small weeds from a bed of soil I hadn’t planted anything in yet. He grabbed a hoe and we broke up the weeds. I grabbed a small rake and pulled out many of  the larger weeds before scooping some of the smaller pieces up in my hands.

In all reality, the garden isn’t just a place to grow food. It’s a place to relax, work hard, get dirty and watch life grow. So, while the farmer has some shortcuts that will still yield a good crop, I know I’ll continue to take the longer and maybe more laborious route for my miniature field of vegetables. I’ll continue to use my farmer friends as a great resource for planting and pests and so on, but somehow the garden would still feel like a productive use of my time even if it failed to produce much of any food.

The Abandoned Garden

After some frost this weekend, I’m hoping we’re finally over the last leg of cold weather and that I can start planting next weekend. My roommates and I visited our community garden plot yesterday for our own orientation and had a great time chatting about growing plans while we did some weeding. We have some very ambitious plans for our garden… after seeing the size of our 30×20 plot yesterday, we asked our garden coordinator about renting a second plot… LOTS of planting space! Easier said than done I know, so hopefully we can keep up with all the work we have ahead of us.

Glorious piles of packets of seeds!

One of the rules at our community garden is that raised garden beds can be no more than about 8″ higher than the rest of the garden. There are two reasons for this: 1) deep trenches in the garden, if not smoothed back out well enough at the end of the growing season, will be difficult to drive the tiller through come next year… and 2) if the garden gets overgrown because it is abandoned, it will be a safety hazard for those who walk through that space in an attempt to salvage the garden plot.

These rules make sense to me, and, actually, I suppose we still could create some shorter raised beds if we wanted to, but what’s more interesting here is that the garden committee anticipates (and has a plan to deal with) garden abandoners. Garden abandoners… I hadn’t really thought about this – these are the garden renters who seem to disappear mid-season, Continue reading

First Impressions of the School Garden

This past week, I got the chance to hang out with a crew of kindergarteners as they took their first chance at digging into a small school community garden plot abutting their classroom. The kids were super-excited to get outside and use garden trowels, and while the main lesson of the day surrounded the planting of seeds for sugar snap peas, the kids were most enthusiastic about the earthworms…

Earthworms!

Early in their orientation to the garden, the kids were asked to think of what ways they should behave in the garden Continue reading

Teaching Kids Food Safety: The Oreo Lesson

This weekend, I made it out to the orientation for one of Burlington’s community gardens. We lucked out with some gorgeous, sunny weather that encouraged me and many others to stick around for a while and begin weeding and loosening up the soil for some spring planting.

While most of the adults began hoeing and digging and planting a few seeds, five or six children played around in the garden or by the playhouse. One young girl crouched down by a garden bed and grabbed some soil in her hands. While I didn’t catch on to the possibility that she might try to eat the soil, one of the adults must have sensed this because she told the young girl, “Don’t eat that [soil]. That’s not food dirt. The only good food dirt is crumbled-up Oreo cookies.”

Now, I understand the message this woman was trying to get across to the little girl, which was: soil is not food. Beyond this, the woman may have been considering health risks associated with consuming contaminated dirt. After all, this garden site might be made up entirely of raised garden beds because of known soil toxicity.

In any case, I was really interested in this woman’s way of explaining safe and unsafe food. Translation: don’t eat soil (unsafe), but do eat Oreos (safe)!

Shucks, I’m thinking of those trendy health books with titles like, “Eat This, Not That” where the calorie counts of foods are compared, but here’s how it would look with those Oreos:


I know we want to prevent the girl from eating soil, but might there have been a better way Continue reading

The Dirty Life – More Thoughts on Germs

And so the conversation on hygiene continues! How much of germophobes are we?

This week, while at Friends of Burlington Gardens, the small talk in the office turned to the topic of compost. How do you clean out those pesky compost buckets? This is a hot topic as the weather gets warmer… I think the little critters in my food scrap bin are multiplying a little bit faster now that we’re moving into spring, turning my produce ends into a fragrant pile of funk…

Compost Bin

Image via Wikipedia

Jenn, one of the coordinators at FBG, admitted she is a bit of a germophobe herself, as she and others in the office chatted about the best ways to wipe, rinse, or otherwise clean out the home compost container. A visiting volunteer added that those germs may make  our immune systems stronger, but admitted that she, too, had that germophobe spirit and was adamant about hand washing, especially when working with kids.

So what is our deal with these invisible microbes? I have been enjoying a little reading of sociologist Deborah Lupton‘s work for some insight on our relationship with germs. Lupton argues that we fear the entrance of anything foreign into the body – such as a food we have never tried before. For instance, most of us who have grown up in a westernized culture would likely be uncomfortable eating grasshoppers because we feel anxious and unsure about the effect this foreign product would have on our bodies. Lupton would say we have fear and anxiety over the risk of this food compromising the body, that we regard the body as this sacred vessel that is vulnerable to the outside world whenever we introduce any exogenous substance – such as food.

There exists a fine line between a slightly over-ripe, semi-fermented food that we regard as safe and edible, and a food which is rotten and could possibly make us feel sick. Are those leftovers from last week still okay to eat? Everyone’s definitions of safe and unsafe food are a little different.

Similarly, the layers of food decay that have caked onto the compost bin are perceived as more of a health risk by some than others. This idea that I am applying to the compost bin may not suit the microbiologist who can physically measure bacterial counts to decide relative health risk, but, for the rest of us who rely on a less sophisticated assessment, would you agree that compost looks a little more “germ-y” and threatening as a result of the food appearing increasingly foreign and unfamiliar? And, if not, I would love to hear your great theory on why some of us get so grossed out by our food scraps!

FN 3/19

Garden Hygiene?

English: A picture of compost soil

Image via Wikipedia

We want kids to optimize their health by eating fresh produce from the garden, but should we be concerned about microscopic germs creeping in the soil?

During my most recent visit with the Friends of Burlington Gardens, the director met with Phil*, a representative from a well-known and respected nonprofit. Phil is in the process of planning a fundraising event where as many as three-thousand people would be asked to each plant an individual flower or vegetable seed in their provided container. For this big event, Phil plans to collect donations of seeds and soil and provide a unique growing container. With the supplies mostly lined up, he visited Friends of Burlington Gardens to ask for help with the logistics of actually getting three-thousand people to sow their seeds in their containers. Similar to a previous seed-starting event I posted about earlier, Phil is looking for help to direct children and adults on how to plant their seeds at soil stations set up at the event.

One of Phil’s logistical concerns was sanitation. How would three-thousand people wash their hands after getting muddied up from the soil? Besides a little dirt under the fingernails, Phil commented that his co-workers – less comfortable with gardening and getting down in the dirt – had been concerned about how hygienic or sanitary this might be and wondered how they might be able to set up hand-washing stations in the park where the event was to be held.

Dirty soil. I had not thought much about this before. It is true that soil is loaded with microbes – some more friendly than others – so how concerned should this event be with providing water and soap to the participants after they plant the seed starters?

Phil added that he was less concerned about the sanitation issue himself, so really he was bringing this up more on the behalf of his co-workers, but the Friends of Burlington Gardens director supported his idea. Hand washing stations make sense for such a large crowd. Plus, they could be used to rinse out the planting containers as well.

I agree with Phil and the director that hand washing stations would be appreciated simply because this will be such a large event. But it got me thinking about the response Phil’s co-workers had to gardening and the less obvious matter they may have been expressing… In the grand scheme of things, how concerned should we be about children’s health and sanitation when playing in the dirt?

If you ask me, a little dirt won’t hurt. Some exposure to germs is important for building up that natural immunity. But should I be sympathetic to those who are more germophobic? Certainly, there are cases where the soil might be poorer quality and truly unsafe for growing food. (TLC Home shares some tips on remedying polluted soil in these scenarios.) Not all soil is the same…

So for those who might be less comfortable with a little dirt under the fingernails, are there ways we should try to make the gardening experience more hygienic and ‘clean’? Or do you think getting dirty and grubby is a necessary rite of passage for the gardener? I would love your thoughts on this, as well as suggestions for a more hygienic dirtiness!

*name changed

FN 3/12

Seed Starting Workshop: For All Ages?

In anticipation of warmer weather and softer soils, Friends of Burlington Gardens (FBG) hosted its first annual seed-sprouting event to get kids ready for spring gardening. The event was conveniently held at the same time as the neighboring winter farmer’s market, but it was an awkward juxtaposition to see plots of soft summer grass, a badminton net, and a lemonade stand in the drafty basement of a municipal building.

This Saturday was my first time working with FBG, and my job was to help kids plant seed starters in small plastic drink cups. I introduced myself to my host, and then was promptly put to work setting up a workshop table with the plastic potting cups, labels, a watering can, soil, and a few dozen seed packets. I worked the earlier half of the event, when traffic was slowest, but I helped about 8 or 10 kids plant their soon-to-be fruits, vegetables, and flowers.

If I were stranded on a desert island where I committed the rest of my life to teaching kids how to make their seed starters, and I only could bring one kind of seed… I would bring watermelon seeds. These seeds are big and easy to tuck into a soft bed of soil, and kids loved the idea of growing this juicy fruit. Whenever a child was too shy or quiet (or distracted by badminton games) to pick a seed, I pushed the Moon and Stars watermelon seed.

Although some of the very youngest preschool-aged kids needed plenty of direction and were rather timid, the older elementary-schoolers dug into the project with little hesitation. At one point, three girls were planting their seeds together and making their own tags (which they all labeled with their names, rather than the plant’s). The girls planted 2-3 starters a piece and followed the reading instructions on the plant packages with me.

Many of these girls must have planted starters before, I thought. How could this be such an intuitive process to them? Sure, Mom helped some with directions, but the kids piled soil into their potting cups and dropped in seeds without asking many questions. I thought my job would be more about directing shy children all day and prodding them to try planting, but it was just the opposite: I had trouble keeping up with watering the plants for kids as they finished up! I suspect most adults would be much more timid to create starters, out of fear of making a mistake, maybe burying a seed too deep in the dirt or spilling too much water into the cup. These children, on the other hand, had no fear of mistakes or the knowledge they lacked. At what age do we decide gardening is only a task for the master gardener?

FN 2/6