Children Work in the Garden, too

If we could do our work with the fascination of a child digging in the garden, the world would be transformed. Fascination is defined by a child watching wriggling worms or extracting carrots from the earth.


Somehow, when we grow up, this ability to be fascinated is lost. To remember what it was all about, just put children in a garden and watch them go to work.


Intent on exposing their children to the spellbinding world of plants, parents in Los Angeles schools have taken the initiative in starting gardens at their kids’ schools.


The idea seems so obvious and apolitical and good, you wonder why it has been so long in coming. Perhaps it was just a matter of the baby boomers reaching middle age, the time of life when many people start to garden. As parents began digging in the earth, they could not help noticing their kids’ enthusiasm.


Also, as school budgets have been slashed, funds for the upkeep and improvement of campus grounds have disappeared. Go to almost any public school and you will see brown lawns, withered shrubs and trees with dead branches. How can children learn to appreciate beauty when they are surrounded by ugliness?


At Woodlake Elementary School in Woodland Hills, Lynette Mathis was determined to make a difference.


“After the riots, I thought of starting a school garden as a symbol of hope. Then, one morning while putting in the irrigation system, we looked up and saw smoke from the Malibu fire coming over the hills. Last spring, after the earthquake, we did our first major planting. All of these events strengthened me in my belief that people have to become involved in their own communities if they want to have control over their lives. A community garden is the perfect place to start the process of involvement. Our children, instead of just reading about ecology and guardianship of the earth, are actually doing something about it.”


Mathis’ idealism extends to the landscape design at Woodlake, which actually consists of eight mini-gardens or ecosystems, all of them drought- tolerant.


There are plantings of succulents and cacti, of Australian and California natives, of ferns and ornamental grasses, as well as butterfly and herb gardens. The success of Mathis’ landscape is due, in part, to her use of wide paths of decomposed granite, which interconnect and integrate the various small gardens, all planted on raised beds. The new landscape is large, taking up half of the school’s frontage; by using wide garden paths, the planted areas are of a manageable size, and should not demand labor-intensive maintenance.


Highland Hall in Northridge is part of a network of 400 schools around the world that adhere to the teachings of Rudolf Steiner, a German educator in the early part of this century whose credo was to “teach the whole child – head, heart and hands.” Steiner was the founder of biodynamic agriculture, an organic farming technique that taps into cosmic forces by adhering to age- old practices such as planting when the moon is favorably positioned in the sky.


Carola Miller, a mother at the school, interprets Steiner’s philosophy to mean that “even as we rush into the modern world, we should keep part of the old.” This belief is borne out in her use of heirloom seeds in the school’s vegetable garden, which she supervises. Heirloom seeds come from varieties of plants that were “brought here by grandmother” and produce tasty, nutritious crops generation after generation. The hybrid seeds sold in nurseries will produce predictable crops, but the seeds of these crops will not produce similarly the following season. In other words, if you want Big Boy tomatoes every summer, you must buy Big Boy seeds every spring. Planting seeds extracted from Big Boy tomatoes will not yield tomatoes of the same quality. Heirloom seeds, on the other hand, will produce quality crops whose seeds also will produce quality crops.


At Highland Hall, they have just completed the corn harvest. Two crops were grown: a multicolored Anazasi corn from the Southwest and a hull-less Japanese popcorn. Viable Anazasi corn seed has been found in the walls of 100- year-old adobe huts, its vitality preserved in the cool, dry thickness of the adobe clay. The advantage of hull-less popcorn is that it lacks those brown fibers that get stuck in your teeth! This fall, Miller is going to plant cover crops. She will grow rye grass, vetch (which twines up the rye as it develops) and bell beans. When the crops are at 50 percent bloom, the students will turn them under – with spading forks – to enrich the soil for next spring’s planting.


“At our school, we teach children that you have to work for what you get.”


I can’t help noticing the immaculately kept grounds, even though the school operates on a small budget. The values of work and beauty are enshrined here. Teachers even discourage their students from watching television. Can you imagine such a thing? Perhaps television, the busy parent’s best baby sitter, might give way to the garden, if only once in a while, as a means of captivating our kids’ imagination.


Tip of the week: From now until the middle of November is the best time of the year to plant trees and shrubs. The ground is warm from the summer, so root growth will be rapid. The days are short enough so that even a hot day will not cause significant plant stress.




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