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.

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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

Does Gardening Increase Fruit and Vegetable Intake?

Do gardeners eat more fruits and vegetables than their counterparts? The research says, “Yes!” but notes certain types of gardeners consume more than others.

Jackie Brinkman posted on the UCDenver Blog about a research study published in the August 2011 issue of the American Journal of Public Health. Brinkman summarizes the research findings:

“[This] research has shown that places such as community gardens matter in terms of neighborhood quality and people’s health…More than 50% of gardeners meet national guidelines for fruit and vegetable intake compared to 25% of non-gardeners.”

This research was very intriguing to me, and so I took a look at the original article to learn more. As a blogger attempting to summarize key points from this study, Brinkman’s post is a fairly accurate portrayal of the original research. However, Brinkman does not clarify what kinds of gardeners appear to benefit most from gardening. The researcher’s results showed the 56% of community gardeners met the national recommendations of five or more servings of fruits and vegetables per day, but – contrary to Brinkman’s post – less than 50% of home gardeners met this mark. Only 37% of home gardeners and 25% of nongardeners reported consuming the recommended five or more servings.

Scholars Fineburg and Rowe write in their commentary how those of us who relay information to the public can ensure we effectively communicate the story. Whether we are bloggers or university researchers, our role as conveyors of health information must be exercised with caution to ensure information is accurate and accessible to the audience. One of the guidelines Fineburg and Rowe suggest all messengers follow is to avoid simplifying the facts. In this case, blogger Brinkman has shared that gardeners consume more fruits and vegetables, but she fails to note what kind of gardeners are benefitting most: those who are growing in community plots.

Also consider the context of this study: because this study was conducted among urban adults, we cannot yet say what role the community garden may have for children, or how health habits may differ for those in rural communities.

So what should we take away from this study? While continued research will need to affirm these findings, this study shows that, while gardening in any form is associated with eating more fruits and veggies, our dietary habits might be more positively influenced through the connections we build within our communities. Find a neighbor and get digging!

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Edible Vegetable Art

Carrot wheels, apple slices, kale leaves, chunks of hot pink watermelon radishes, deep purple beets…

These were just some of the art supplies available to children who attended a workshop on edible art last weekend. Given this beautiful array of produce, the children developed VERY creative sculptures such as sailboats with kale leaves, porcupines, and even an outhouse!

As much as I was surprised by the creativity of the kids, I was even more surprised by their knowledge of fruits and vegetables. How many kids can identify a watermelon radish and yellow beets? For that matter, how many adults can identify these veggies? I have to admit that I would have guessed the mysterious pink vegetable was some rare cross between a turnip and a beet, but many of the kids were quick to recognize the watermelon radish.

Now, to be fair, many of our participants were the children of garden enthusiasts and organic farmers. The workshop’s coordinator, who has led similar activities with other, predominantly urban kids, was also surprised by how many could identify these uncommon veggies.

Maybe this was not the most typical group of kids after all. During one of the workshop sessions, I had fun collaborating with a few of the kids to build a rainforest of broccoli, complete with a tropical bird made from beets and raisins. The children were hungry and snacked on apples, carrots, and celery, and one of the boys announced that he wanted to eat his rainforest broccoli for lunch, but that he would wait until the end of the day so he and his partner could first showcase their artwork for others to see.

Since when do kids need to refrain from eating their fruits and vegetables?

According to a 2006 study on fruit and vegetable intake, less than 20% of elementary school-aged children consume the recommended five or more servings of vegetables each day. Would these workshop attendees fit within the 20% of children who do make the cut? If these children are such avid eaters, what’s their secret? Is it that their parents regularly expose the kids to fruits and vegetables from the garden? Is it that these children are encouraged to try new foods like the watermelon radish? Or is it that these children participate in gardens themselves? The coordinators at Friends of Burlington Gardens share success stories of kids and teens who transform their eating habits through a garden program… but what is it about the gardening experience that could improve diet?

Digging into the Gardening Scene

And here the adventures begin…

In continuing my exploration and appreciation of Vermont’s local food system, I plan to learn about the role of a nonprofit organization here in Burlington that promotes gardening  for all ages and incomes. In the coming weeks, I will be volunteering with a local organization, Friends of Burlington Gardens, and sharing my thoughts here.

My hunt through the blogosphere suggests the conversation I will be joining is rather quiet and disconnected. It is much easier to find blogs on how to teach children to garden, and on the status of schools’ teaching gardens, than it is to find blogs on the individual’s experience participating in these activities, as I will do with this blog. Getting children in the garden is a hot topic, and so I do appreciate those who can provide suggestions for implementing programs or creating activities. But how does a garden program appear to operate when viewed from a more intimate lens? By working with the organizations that help catalyze school gardens and community gardens, I want to understand what makes these programs magical successes – or failures – and reflect upon the role I, as a community member and nutrition student, contributes.

Most of the blogs I found on gardening with children during my search are written as more objective reports or simple tips… One of the blogs I viewed, Urban Sprouts, is a diary of the activities performed by a San Francisco-based organization – developing school gardens around the city in underserved areas, in an effort to provide education to the community’s youth and their families. Another blog, Gardening4Kids, written by a parent and teacher, was a short-lived blog providing tips for kid-friendly plants and lemonade-making. These blogs contribute to the conversation about exposing children to gardens, but they are each only slightly similar to KidsDigGardens in how they report on the gardening scene…

A third blog, GreenSchoolyard, was best aligned with my blogging intentions. This author described her interest in coordinating gardening curricula during her role as a substitute teacher. The author refers to herself as the “wanna-be school gardener” who is learning about how to provide gardening education to children. I can relate best to this blog because of the introspective style used by the blogger to report on lessons learned and skills gains through repeated exposure to school gardening and facilitating children’s activities.

In the blogs that I have described here, the authors emphasize gardening as a form of physical activity more so than as a means to produce and consume food. Teaching gardens are touted for all of these benefits, but I intend to highlight the latter: good eating. After all, this blog is meant to serve a more intimate, personal lens of the garden world, and the foodie nutritionist in me cannot help but hope children will eat more fruits and vegetables.

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