Growing up in a dense urban environment like Singapore meant that “gardening” as a recreational activity made rare, sporadic appearances in my childhood. It wasn’t until my move to California that I discovered the joy of eating a ripe cherry tomato fresh off the vine, a reward for fighting the endless battle with weeds and invasive blackberry bushes.
An avid home gardener and mother of two, Rita Jaworski and her husband cultivate eight vegetable beds in a 24-by-24-foot patch in their backyard. Her eight-year-old daughter enjoys the transplanting of young lettuces and tomato plants at the start of the season, while her younger son enthusiastically participates when Rita and her husband spend their weekends tending to the patch. It should come as no surprise then, to learn that she runs the Garden Club program at her children’s school, Carlton Elementary in San Jose’s Union School District. A total of 21 vegetable beds — 10 for kindergarten classes and 11 for elementary classes — were installed about a decade ago, tended to by a rotating roster of volunteer parents through the years.
Said Rita, “One of the parents developed a curriculum of gardening activities — incorporating science and math aspects — a few years ago. I took over when she moved to Southern California and draw on her material for Garden Club activities, especially in winter when the weather’s cold and not a lot of growing happens.”
The curriculum provides a flexible structure to guide what is essentially an open-ended lunchtime program. There are no exams to speak of, just the invitation to participate if and when the inclination hits. The Club runs weekly in the spring and fall sessions, and fortnightly in winter. Spring is filled with the excitement of turning the soil and planting peas, tomatoes and beans, while fall is a time to harvest the fruits of their work. In between there is the tedious task of weeding, which a child’s eager hands make quick work of.
“The kids just love the chance to play in the dirt,” Rita shared. “Last year we had a ‘Pick and Eat’ theme for the garden, so we planted vegetables that were easy to harvest and eat off the vine, like beans and tomatoes. This gave the kids a chance to know where their food comes from and to try new foods that they may not have tasted before.”
My visit on a mid-February afternoon witnessed about 70 kids intently focused on decorating plastic water bottles that they would transform into hummingbird feeders at home, with their parents’ help and the aid of an instruction sheet which Rita prepared. On it were tips and suggestions on the best places to position a feeder and a simple recipe for nectar that would attract the birds.
Because she only has an hour with the kids, the program strives to develop an interest for gardening, while equipping them with simple lessons about nature and growing one’s food. It’s a tricky balance to achieve. To keep the excitement going while the 2012 winter garden took its time to flourish, she and her team of volunteer parents started a “Grass People” project in late January, handing out seedlings nestled in a half eggshell for kids to tend. Over a five-week period, they were tasked to nurture the seedlings, chart the growth of the grass and create stories and drawings about their assigned “Grass Person.” At the end, each child got a prize “just for participating.”
“I sort of fell into leading this program when the previous parent left. I really love to garden and I also enjoy seeing the enthusiasm of the kids when they help tend to the vegetable beds,” Rita said. “With the help of some amazing parents volunteering each week and the unfailing support of our principal, we’ve managed to keep this program going over the years, and hopefully for a long time to come!”
“My goal with Garden Club is to get kids out of their comfort zone and to show them aspects of life and nature that they wouldn’t experience otherwise. Some kids don’t have a garden at home, and this is their only opportunity to nurture their interest for gardening. We have our regulars who come every week, and then there are those who come a few times and realize that it’s not for them, which is fine too,” she continued.
An early exposure to the intricacies of gardening, like digging the earth with bare hands, or learning about what the soil needs in order to deliver nutritious produce, will certainly help build the foundation
s of a healthy relationship to food. Couple that with a sprinkle of activities involving math, science and art, and gardening suddenly becomes a rich educational opportunity. What inspires your garden?
About the author: Danielle Tsi grew up in Singapore, a tiny, food-obsessed island on the tip of the Malaysian Peninsula, where every waking minute was spent thinking about what her next meal was going to be. Landing in the United States with her well-traveled Nikon, she turned her lifelong love affair with food into images and words on her blog, Beyond the Plate. When not behind the lens or at the stove, Danielle can be found on her yoga mat perfecting the headstand.