Tuesday, April 28, 2015

From There To Here

We've all thought, "It's too hard," or even, "It's impossible." I know I have, stopping myself before I even begin. If I tell the truth, however, I know that what I really mean is that I don't want to work that hard or that long. Maybe I'm lazy. Maybe I'm too impatient. Maybe I can't see a way from here to there. Whatever the case, "It's too hard" is a calculation, one that determines whether the reward is worth the anticipated effort.

But it's a false equation, or at least one falsely applied. The reward of a grand effort is not so much found in its results as much as in the effort itself and when I began to understand this, it's when I began to understand that no one really knows how to get from here to there: we can only see now and our imagined future. The journey must be lived.

It must have been a decade ago that I got turned on to Jamie Oliver's food education outreach. At the time, our outdoor space was little more than a slab of asphalt and a muddy area we called "the garden," in which a few hearty specimens thrived, but was otherwise our primary digging space. Inspired by Oliver's message, I remember wishing we could have a cool preschool gardening curriculum, but thought it "too hard." I've never had a particularly green thumb, young children tend to trample small plants, and we really needed a place to dig. 

Still, we started doing little things like planting radish seeds along with a bed of various "experiments," things we put in the ground to see if they would grow. We tried all kinds of seeds as well as a few non-seed items like sticks, rocks, and jello. That wasn't too hard. We grew bean sprouts in baby food jars and one day Dennis ate so many he puked. That's where we started and it really wasn't too hard at all.

The other thing I did is talk about food and gardening with any of our community parents who would listen, just sharing my vision of a real-deal urban gardening curriculum and admitting I had no idea how to make it happen. Later that year, at least in part due to my talking, our garden got an upgrade as part of an overall outdoor overhaul: mainly we repaired and rebuilt our raised beds and chose a few plants to stick in there. It wasn't too hard, but it did serve as a sort of declaration of intent to at least think a little bit more about gardening.

When we moved to our current location in Fremont we located our raised bed garden at the heart of our outdoor space. One parent built it in a weekend, reusing much of the wood from our old place. Then a year later, a couple of industrious parents moved it to a place with better sun, which was even more at the bullseye of our space. This year, another team of parents, rebuilt the whole thing, adding much-needed height, a nice little vine trellis, and some built in seating. No one asked any of these parents to do this. They simply bought into the idea of a garden at the heart of our school and because we're a cooperative, they figured it was on them to make it happen. They did what they could with the time they had and it wasn't too hard.

We've tried a number of gardening experiments, over the years. I once tried propagating dandelions as a way to give kids an unlimited crop of "picking flowers," but they wouldn't grow. We once "bagged" our entire garden space over a pvc pipe skeleton in the hopes of creating a cheap greenhouse, but it blew down with every wind. Most of them were the kinds of failures from which you learn a few lessons while having a little fun: not too hard.

To our credit, we've done a decent job of keeping something growing in the garden for the past few years. We've learned that children will devour every leaf of kale or bud of broccoli that dares show its green head. We've learned that children will eat raw green beans: they will, in fact, wait as I cut one green bean into 20 pieces so everyone can taste it. We've learned that children will devour raw baby beets as a group of boys did a few weeks ago, obliterating our entire crop. We've learned that the obliteration of an entire crop is a predictable part of gardening with preschoolers. Several weeks ago I spied a two-year-old carrying a tidy bouquet made up of most of our strawberry blossoms. Last summer our raspberries were picked green by a girl making "berry soup." We've learned quite a bit, I think, just by having lived with a preschool garden for a number of years now. 

This year, we re-organized how our school is managed. Part of this process resulted a three parent team responsible for "the garden." Our gardeners have been gangbusters, giving us a garden with all kinds of well-labelled things sprouting. We've designated one bed our "foraging bed," which features some battered examples of leafy green veggies, and an herb bed from which the children also graze. We've upped our vigilance about berries, root veggies, and vines, attempting to explain the difference. We've also managed to teach the children how to pick leaves without uprooting the entire plant, "Two hands, carefully, so we don't kill them." It's been a lot of work, but far from too hard.

For the past few years, I've been talking about the idea of having such a robust gardening program that our children, every day, eat something they've grown themselves. That would, in our climate, probably require a greenhouse. I've mentioned to anyone who would listen: "Wouldn't it be great . . . ?"

Last year, Clara's mom Isabelle asked if we would be interested in working with a graduate level design-build program from the University of Washington. She knew the professor who felt a greenhouse would be exactly the sort of thing his class takes on. We had to raise money and wait until they could get us on their schedule. This was a lot of work, especially from Isabelle, but we easily surpassed our goal and she seemed cheery throughout. Still, as it turns out, not too hard.

And now the date of our groundbreaking approaches. The students are already doing much of the assembly in their studio. The drawings and models I'm showing you here will be a reality in just a few weeks.

If you had asked me ten years ago, I'd have told you this was too hard, impossible, but here we are having journeyed from there to here, not yet the destination I envisioned, but it's in sight. And now we have so many more places to go.

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Jean Woessner said...

This is so exciting! Our school has a garden area but it's small because there is precious little room and we live in an area that has normally harsh winters so a short growing season. i am looking forward to seeing the new gardening space installed! Lucky you!

Jean Woessner
Emeritus Faculty
UCCC Preschool
Missoula, MT

Carrie Melsom said...

I am in awe. Thank you for this thoughtful reminder that life takes time to unfold and every little step makes a difference if you have a sense of where you want to get to.