Rooting D.C.: Growing Youth Agriculture

Getting dirty should be an essential part of every kid’s life. After all, kids are highly washable. One great way to get children involved in the Great Outdoors is by teaching them gardening, especially growing fruits and vegetables. As I’m already involving Sprout in my garden, I was thrilled to consider some new philosophical approaches and learn some practical activities for gardening with children at this year’s Rooting DC conference.

The information fair at Rooting D.C.

While a lot of the workshops were designed for teachers, I was particularly interested in learning about gardening as a parent. The presentation from Permiekids founder Jen Mendez hit the spot. She explained that permaculture can be used as a philosophy not just for growing food, but for life. It is based on three values: care for people, care for the earth and finding sustainable ways to use surplus. The actions flowing out of these values should reinforce and feed into one another. While I’ve been interested in permaculture for quite a while, I had never seen it summarized quite so succinctly. While we think of “excess surplus” as being inherently about physical goods, she pointed out that it can also be an “excess” of skills, time, or especially in the case of young children, energy. Skills can be taught to others, time can be used to build something good, energy can be harnessed into service. It provided a really different perspective on how to approach parenting and children’s behavior. Being bored is just an excess of time and energy!

Painting with apple cores with Permiekids at Rooting D.C.

But it wasn’t all philosophy. Jen also had a lot of fun, practical activities for engaging children in nature. She demonstrated how you could use leftover scraps from apple pie to make apple cider vinegar before composting them. Cores and mushy slices can make interesting paintbrushes. Cracking nuts – whether with a nutcracker or more creative tools, like rocks – can develop fine motor skills.

Her suggestions extended beyond crafts to broader approaches to learning in general. One idea that was brilliant and absurdly simple was having a Question Wall in a prominent place in the house. Whenever someone has a question – child or adult, serious or silly – they post it to the Wall. That way, even if you don’t have time to answer right at the moment, you can still investigate it later. Toddlers are known for their love of “Why?” and a Question Wall seems like a great way to show kids that their questions are valuable without running late to every appointment.

While that workshop had the most personal application, the other two presentations I went to were more relevant to my community volunteer work. Although I haven’t been an active urban gardening volunteer for a few years, I do have a dream of starting a youth garden at the town park across the street from me.

The first session, called Bringing the Neighbors Back to the Hood, framed urban agriculture projects around the seven principles of Kwanzaa. As I knew very little about Kwanzaa before, it was fascinating to learn about these values.

I particularly appreciated the reminder of Kujichagulia or self-determination – that we need to respect people’s selves and experiences. As a practical matter, this means finding out if people in my neighborhood are even interested in starting a youth garden instead of going off and doing it on my own. It also reignited my interest in doing a project to interview the members of the community who have lived here for decades about their memories of growing and eating food. Signage in the youth garden recalling these stories could connect the older and younger generations.

Their discussion of Ujima – collective work and responsibility – also struck me hard as a upper-middle-class white girl. The presenters made the point that not only is everyone is obliged to help the greater community, but we need to appreciate what people can bring instead of what they don’t. One presenter said that instead of labeling people as “underprivileged or underserved, all of those ‘under’ words,” we should consider how to use their existing assets and skills. She said that when they worked with developmentally disabled adults, they said they had “differing abilities” instead of “special needs.” While that might sound like being “politically correct,” it’s actually much more respectful towards people you’re interacting with. For my theoretical youth garden, this was a reminder that learning goes both ways, not just from adults to children.

The principle of Kuumba or creativity tied very strongly into my final workshop for the day, which was presented by City Blossoms. An organization that focuses on youth gardening, City Blossoms has a lot of great ideas for pre-K and other young children. The presenter showed photos of a number of their community gardens that incorporate art and music. They repurpose old bicycle wheels into noisemakers, turn rain gutters into painted xylophones, and hang beads from painted wood to create colorful clouds. Digging beds for little kids allow them to play freely without messing up the vegetables. With chalkboard walls, children can write and draw to their hearts’ content. All of these projects seemed very doable and cheap for any youth garden.

Seed sorting game with City Blossoms at Rooting D.C.

After the slideshow, the City Blossoms person demonstrated a couple of activities they do with school kids when the weather is foul. Teachers or volunteers can use a seed sorting game to discuss sizes, colors, and texture. Gluing the seeds into a mini-mosaic allowed students to incorporate patterns like stripes and spirals, as well as practice their hand-eye coordination. I was pleased with my mosaic, although most of the seeds had fallen out of the clay by the time I got home. The dangers of trying to carry too much on public transportation!

Rooting D.C., when hundreds of people gather to celebrate their love of urban agriculture, always reinvigorates me. I’m so grateful that we have an event that covers everything from racial justice to youth gardening, often in the same session.

Starting Seeds with Sprout

Kids and dirt are natural companions. But while most moms discourage their toddlers from getting dirty, I purposely gave my kid a big bowl of dirt a few days ago. And over a white carpet, no less. The things I do in the name of permaculture and teaching my son about my passions.

The actual purpose of this disaster-in-the-making was to start seeds for my vegetable garden. I’ve been starting seeds for my garden for several years now and even started saving seeds myself. This year, I had tomato seeds and sweet potato starts saved from my garden as well as pepper, cantelope, and butternut squash seeds from vegetables purchased at the farmer’s market. The rest I bought from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, which in addition to carrying organic, heirloom and regionally-developed seeds, has a lovely catalog with hand-drawn illustrations and stories about the selections.

While I could have planted my seeds by myself, I want to involve Sprout as much as possible in my gardening. Teaching children how to garden increases the likelihood of enjoying vegetables, gets them outside with all of the sensory benefits that involves, helps them feel more like they contribute to the larger household, and teaches them the valuable skill of growing food. Plus, gardening has taught me to be a better parent.

You can also use gardening to teach all sorts of academic skills, including math (counting seeds and measuring distances between plantings), biology (the growth of a plant), and social studies (where we get our food). Personally, I see it as an opportunity to teach ecological principles. In my garden, I practice permaculture, which focuses on working within ecological systems in ways that produce goods for people such as food. Through lasagna composting or gardening, where you layer several levels of organic matter together like leaf litter in a forest, I can demonstrate the importance of decomposition. With cover crops like clover or hairy vetch, I can show him on a practical level how nitrogen fixing works and why it’s essential to the ecosystem. Planting flowers that attract bees and butterflies can demonstrate how pollinators rely on plants and vice versa.

But as he doesn’t understand higher-level concepts yet, we’re mainly working on our fine motor skills. I started our gardening adventure with a big bowl of wet seed starting base. To prepare, I took my old seed starting pots – recycled yogurt containers with holes punched in the bottom – and sprayed them down with a bleach solution, then rinsed them in water. Because new sprouts are extremely vulnerable to mold, you have to minimize potential contamination if you plan to use them in the garden. It’s like sanitizing a newborn’s bottles. Then, I took the seed starting mixture from the garden store and soaked it in water. The soil needs to be thoroughly damp for starting seeds and I find it a lot easier to do that before planting the seeds rather than afterwards. Whenever I’ve done it afterwards I’ve ended up drowning them.

As I set this whole rigamarole up, Chris was giving me a bit of the stink-eye. Not that he didn’t want Sprout to participate in gardening, but he was highly skeptical of my confidence in containing the mess. I would have preferred to do this task outside as well, but as the temperatures were topping out in the teens, that wasn’t an option. As I laid out paper towels, I hoped my hope was more well-founded than his skepticism.

With my containers, starter, seeds, and masking tape for labeling, we startd the work of planting. Sprout’s main task was to move seed starting mix from a big bowl into the individual containers. With a bit of explanation and demonstration, he understood quite quickly. It must have tapped into toddlers’ love of moving stuff from one container to another. Tackling the job with gusto, he stuck his little hand in the giant bowl fully of mud and grabbed what he could. Picking up a small clump at a time, he shifted it from one container to the other with relatively little leakage. And he never purposely threw dirt.

After we filled a container up 3/4 of the way, I took several seeds and spaced them out around the top. Sprout then sprinkled a few more bits of dirt on top, which I smoothed out with my hand, making sure all of the seeds were covered but too deep. He actually was working so fast that I had to tell him to slow down so we didn’t bury the seeds by mistake. Then we handed it off to Chris, who wiped down the container and labeled it with the plant name.

As quickly as it started, it was over, with six containers of seeds to show for it. There was a lot of dirt on his crafts table, some on the mat underneath, and a little bit on the carpet. Most of the dirt that ended up on the floor was because he brushed it off the seat of his table in a mistaken but well-intentioned attempt to keep things neat. The main loss was the majority of a packet of tiny basil seeds that Sprout had mistakenly dumped. They were so hopelessly mixed in with dirt that retrieving them was impossible.

For his help, I gave Sprout a special present later in the day – the book Growing Vegetable Soup. Written and illustrated by Lois Elhart, who illustrated Chicka Chicka Boom Boom, it describes the process of vegetable gardening from start to finish, complete with comprehensive labels for every tool and veggie. I saw the book back when I was shopping for Christmas and decided I would put it aside until we actually started the gardening process. While he probably doesn’t understand the steps yet, I hope reading the book over and over again will improve his comprehension of what’s going on by this summer.

As we move forward, I’ll keep him in the loop of caring for the plants. According to my gardening book, “petting” seedlings makes them stronger, so that will be his job if he can be gentle enough. He also loves turning lights on and off, so I’ll let him pull the chain for the grow lights.

Starting seeds shares some elements of parenting a toddler: the mix of unpredictability, anticipation and potential for the future. It’s also taking a bit of a stand for hope as this brutally cold winter drags on. It reminds yourself that yes, I do believe that one day the warmth will return. It’s these little symbols that get us through the tough times – the image of one tiny seed, nurtured by love and water, eventually producing a wealth of delicious vegetables.

Raising Sprout

Gardening has been on my mind a lot lately.

Last weekend, we visited the White House Garden, during one of the two days a year they open the gates to the general public. While Chris had previously been there for a sustainable food event in culinary school, I had never been. Although I was temporarily confused by the presence of tulips in the Rose Garden (roses are out of season), I enjoyed seeing the location of so many big announcements. I eagerly peered around crowds for a view of the White House kitchen garden and tried not to be stung by an occupant of the White House beehive. Meanwhile, Sprout was completely uninterested in the plants. However, he was enamored with holding on to the black lacquered security fence. No accounting for taste!

The next day, I worked in my own garden while Chris played with Sprout on the lawn. I planted sunflowers, arugula, chives, and peanuts, all of which are new to my garden this year. Next week, I’ll be transplanting my seedlings and sprouts of tomatoes, peppers, melon, beans, peas, and squash.

Because everything relates to parenting for me, I started thinking about how starting seeds is like parenting: you need to build good soil, be willing to get your hands (and everything else) dirty, and provide gradual transitions.

I believe a gardener’s job is more about cultivating good soil than growing plants. It’s all about creating the right conditions – plenty of light, the right amount of nutrients, the right amount of water, and the right temperatures. Not too little or too much of any one element. If you’re thoughtful about where you place your garden and prepare the soil well, even a large garden doesn’t need they much upkeep.

Just like I can’t actually make the seeds grow, I can’t and don’t want to have complete control over my son. I want him to develop at his own pace, without rushing or pressuring him. I want to model and create the circumstances around him that inspire a love of learning, enjoyment of nature, and compassion towards people. I see a child’s ideal soil as lots of hugs, physical and mental space to explore, play with kids of various ages, time spent outside, exposure to arts and music, and quality time with parents and other caring adults. While parents should try to provide as much of this as possible, they can’t do it alone. Fortunately, we have wonderful parents ourselves, a strong church community, activities offered through the town, and friends that support us. As with a garden, we hope a thoughtful approach and hard work up front will pay off later in a capable, caring kid.

In both cases, building good soil involves getting your hands dirty. My gardening style is literally earthy – I’ve always enjoying playing in the dirt. I don’t wear gardening gloves because they make me feel clumsy. Sometimes rather than use a trowel, I scoop potting soil out of the bag with my hands. After I garden, my hands and nails always have dirt ground into them.

Similarly, you can never escape the mess as a parent. Sprout has peed on me, sneezed ground bison on me, sprayed tomatoes and beef on me while blowing a raspberry, wiped snot on my shirt, and caused me to get poop on my hands. He has bit me on the nipple, knee, and arm. I’ve wiped drool off of his chin more times than I can count and have already committed the ultimate mom sin of using own spit to clean his face. (I swore I never would!) I’m far too familiar with the sticky pink goo that is Ora-Gel. I’ve looked like the walking dead after near-sleepless nights. I’ve been in my pajamas far too late in the day and changed into them far too early in the evening. Not that I was ever fashionable, but pumping and nursing drive a surprising amount of my wardrobe choices. I happily sit in the grass, watching Sprout rip up weeds and inspect leaves. Getting dirty is what we do around here.

Lastly, I think we need to respect the cycles and transitions of nature and children. When you raise seeds in early spring, you need to harden them off before you transfer them to the soil. Inside, they stay one temperature with consistent watering and light. If you take them from that controlled environment and plant them outside without first exposing them to the elements – sun, wind, temperature changes – they go into shock. They then die or are weaker than they would be otherwise. Like the baby plants, kids also need to be at first very protected then slowly exposed to the real world before adulthood. That small amount of exposure and gradual transition makes them far more resilient in the face of difficult situations.

Approaching change as a series of slow transitions works for less dramatic changes too. While it took about six (hard) months, our sleep training approach of moving from nursing to rocking to holding to being present and then to laying him down by himself has paid off. We made it through with a minimum of crying (albeit a lot of whining). Now, he’s asleep within 10 minutes and usually only wakes up once a night. Similarly, we think he’ll do pretty well when we go to Disney World this summer because he’s used to the busyness of the city and crowds of people. While some people refer to these in-between steps as a crutch, I would rather supply him with a crutch and transition away from it than have him fall hard on his face at first and be discouraged from trying again.

While most of the plants in my garden only last a season, how I treat Sprout will last a lifetime. Thankfully, he’s pretty forgiving and there are always more opportunities to get down and dirty.