It’s not surprising that many of life’s most valuable lessons only get half learned. It is simply too easy to divert to a different path rather than follow anything to it’s conclusion. Never have there been so many forks in life’s road. Food lessons are no different. The term “seed to plate” may be on the verge of being overused to the point of meaninglessness but it’s philosophy, which challenges our short attention span, is just beginning to get traction. Looking at the food on our plates and tracing that food’s path back to a point of origin (soil) can be mind boggling. For some, even considering that journey is an epiphany. School gardens not only encourage kids to think about that journey, they invite them to embark on it. By planting a seed and committing to its growth, students learn first hand what it means to bring food to the table. For some foods, a “seed to plate” experience isn’t that much of a challenge. Cherry tomatoes are pretty easy except that many don’t even make it to the kitchen, much less a plate. Some foods require a bit more tenacity. Our last post covered the wheat grown by Mrs. Madrid’s first graders. This morning some of that wheat was finally ground into flour and made it to the plate in the form of pasta.
(Full disclosure: Much of our wheat is still green and not quite ready to harvest and Friday is the last day of school. Bummer. So even though we harvested some of our grain and included it in our recipe, our ingredients were supplemented by a bag of spelt berries.)
These first graders KNOW now what it takes for a seed of wheat that they planted in the fall to wind up as pasta on a plate in the spring. They have imagined it, seen it, smelled it, touched it, and this morning, tasted it. And it was good. All of it.
Encouraging students to strengthen and stretch their anticipation muscles is one of the primary functions of a school garden. Nature’s gratification is rarely instant but positive experiences in a garden, over time can provide a gratifying sense of accomplishment and satisfaction that is rarely equalled. This can also build patience. Everyone loves a patient child (or adult for that matter) but building patient children is difficult work. It is a delicate balance of challenging students just a bit beyond their comfort, but not so far beyond it that they lose heart and give up.
In the case of Mrs. Madrid’s winter wheat, we almost pushed it too far. From a first grader’s perspective, the time between Halloween and Mother’s Day nears eternity, but this is about how long it took for our winter wheat to reach maturity. Keeping first graders interested in watching grass grow for seven months was no small feat. Mrs. Madrid persevered. On a consistent basis this patience building teacher led her class out to the garden to observe and celebrate the slightest development. Even more frequently she sent two students out to water and report back to their classmates. Occasionally she accompanied her friends out to the garden just for a fresh air reset. Regardless, she was always encouraging these children that yes, in time, the harvest would come. And now…. finally… it has. Now, the possibility of pasta from scratch, from serious scratch is at our fingertips.
Maybe it’s a little cruel to make kids wait so long, (We definitely will add more faster growing plants to the first grade syllabus next year.) but they did it. They waited. They cared. They didn’t lose interest. They were patient. And soon, (very soon) spaghetti will never have tasted so good.
If we think of life as a track and field event, it’s easy to see ourselves as long distance runners; bolting out of the starting blocks and leaping over hurdles that challenge us on our way to the finish line. To us, life can start to seem very linear. We learn a lesson, experience painful or joyful moments and then “move on”. Clearly in our own lives, things are not like they used to be and tomorrow, they will not be like they are now. The broader picture of life, however, looks a little less like a marathon and a bit more like jump rope. You know the game where two people are twirling a rope and you have to jump in at just the right moment and hop without tripping for as long as you can. In life we leap into a cycle that started long before we showed up and despite our little vanities will continue long after we stumble out. Things keep coming (and going) around and around. In our annual journey circling the sun we see seasons come and go and then come again. All around us nature is reminding its inhabitants that sustainability is tied to renewal. Nowhere is this more evident than in a vegetable garden. I have long railed against the all to typical (and often only) gardening experience provided to so many young children. A bean seed is placed into a styrofoam cup with some store bought potting soil and placed on a windowsill. While the student does get to see the miracle of germination, more often than not they also witness the desperate, fruitless struggle the undernourished and overwatered seedling makes to break through the glass. In a few weeks the row of shriveled remnants are discretely swept into the trash without the class ever seeing what beans were meant to do: make more beans. When a class of pre-k students can receive pea seeds from the previous year’s class, grow them, eat most of their bounty and save some to pass on to next years pre-k’ers, they can start to see themselves as part of a bigger cycle rather just an individual runner on their own road. This is the first year pre-k has saved some of the seed from their harvest for next year’s class. A class of fourth graders helped them pull pods off of their shriveled (but successful) vines. Already, they see themselves as givers in this game of jump rope. Although I don’t expect to see jump rope as an olympic event anytime soon, this rhythmic pastime will continue to remind me that I’m part of something bigger. So will pre-k’ers and their peas.
The beginning of every academic year is a bit like a stumbling sprint. Parents, students and teachers alike find getting back into the groove of school a bit of a challenge. There is a lot to do and there isn’t much time to ramp up. You’ll sharpen your pencil twice and it’s Christmas. A school garden is no exception. If your garden is like ours, you may find August pretty daunting. In Florida, summer heat and rains usually give us an overgrown tangle of vines and weeds as a back to school present. Even with attention over summer break there are some plants that just aren’t ready to be yanked out to make room for the fall and winter crops. If you planted crowder peas, watermelon or sweet potatoes just before school let out in May, these varieties are still going strong when students return. Couple this with the fact that August is the most brutal month to be outside in Florida and you can see why it’s tempting to just look the other way. Fortunately there is something that can be done (even indoors) to get some cool weather plants off to a healthy and timely start. Seeds in pots. At OJA we try to plant the bulk of our winter crops in small pots during the first few weeks of school. This allows us to make a start on the new garden while we let the old garden wind down. We have found that many seeds in the Brassica family (kale, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower etc.) do well when started this way. It might seem premature to start thinking about winter crops now when a trip to the mailbox requires sunscreen, but like I said: “Christmas is coming”. Planting seeds in pots, rather than directly in the ground, offers other advantages as well.
A tray of of potted seedlings is much easier to manage than a twenty-foot row.
It’s much easier to avoid accidentally stepping on a baby cabbage if it’s in a pot.
For some reason slugs and cut worms seem to be deterred by the three inch climb.
Most importantly, planting our first seeds in pots, indoors, buys us time. By mid September the seedlings will need to be transplanted into the ground and the more challenging work of gardening will begin. The garden has already started but we still have time. We still have time to pull out weeds and decide where the beds will be laid out. We still have time to discuss garden protocol and outdoor learning expectations. We still have time to plan, time to imagine. We still have time to get back into the groove of school.
Time runs from us. It usually takes off in a sprint while we’re looking the other way. Moments quickly pass through our fumbling fingers and we rarely take notice. We’re drawn to details that seem permanent and ageless because they help distract us from the uncomfortable ticking clock. In reality though, building our lives around this distraction is a trap of denial. You can’t stop that clock, no more than you can stop that beautiful sunset. Ironically, part of what makes that sunset so great is that it runs away and doesn’t last. It’s unfortunate that we sometimes associate the temporal with the disposable. We question the value of things that don’t last. In our disposable culture that’s usually a reasonable question, but a sunset is not a paper plate. A melting snowflake is not a plastic fork. The natural world is full of the temporal that calls our attention to time not away from it. For some, the seasons are a drastic reminder of how nature seems to celebrate time. Floridians, however, have to look a little closer. So much of our landscapes here have been designed to appear unchanging. While pursuing the holy grail of the “maintenance-free yard”, we have wound up with an environment that looks pretty much the same in January as it does in July. What a shame. The passage of time should be celebrated. Poppies can help. They don’t last. Look the other way and you’ll miss the party.
We have to admit, growing table grapes in Orlando seemed a little far fetched, until we saw one (yes, just one) gardener doing it. Click HERE to see who it was. Suddenly it became not just possible, but probable. That’s the crazy thing about looking around at what others are doing. It raises the bar. Of course trying to “keep up with the Joneses” has brought misery to many, but seeing what others can do and are doing eliminates the common cynical excuse of “We can’t do that.”. Of course we haven’t tasted these yet, but we have high hopes. Look around. See what’s possible. Be inspired. Give it a shot.
In the spirit of “If you can’t beat’em.. join’em”, OJA has hopped on the GMO bandwagon! In case you aren’t familiar with the acronym, GMO stands for genetically modified organisms. These are living things that have been improved by having their DNA spliced with the DNA of some other living thing. It’s like getting the best of two creatures in one! (without the hassle of species differentiation) Our students are definitely reaping the benefits of this ground breaking technology.
As many of you may already know, for several years we have grown cotton on our campus. We also have an expanding stand of sugar cane. Wouldn’t it be great if these two species could be introduced to each other in a lab and come together to make something truly useful?
Surprise! Organic Cotton Candy
Students are loving our recent addition, and there’s no need for a cotton gin. The seeds taste like Red Hots!
We’ve also acquired seeds to a newly patented vegetable that blends the starchy goodness of a potato with the convenience of asparagus (which frankly… if asparagus weren’t so easy to pick, no one would eat it.) Behold: Potatogus Crispicus, commonly known as the french fry plant.
Here’s a helpful hint: For smaller patio gardens consider the variety “shoestring”. They do great in pots. Also, if you choose “curly fries” we recommend you provide a trellis for them, as they tend to flop when grown unsupported.
Of course these delicious cuttings will need condiments and fortunately Heinz has pushed the scientific envelope. (or should we say “squeezed the packet”) We now have as part of our sponsored test garden a plant that makes it possible to grow our own ketchup! For too long the tomato has been an unecessary and inconvenient step in the “seed to red goop” process. With no refrigeration necessary and no expiration date, this is something really worth growing.
We’re not sure what other DNA was added to a tomato plant to make this marvel. We’re not even sure it was DNA, but hey, we know better than to ask questions about our food.
So, what’s your favorite GMO? Add yours in the comment section.
There are many aspects of gardening that encourage the development of patience. Gratification is hardly instant in food production. Rarely, however, are patience and restraint required to partner together so desperately as when dealing with the agony of growing asparagus. Fresh asparagus is certainly worth the square footage required to grow it and of course good soil and seeds are hardly a sacrifice. The time one must wait to actually eat it, however, is ridiculous. Most gardeners are ready to accept the fact that after the average vegetable seed is planted, there is no need to set the table for at least a couple of months. This flies in the face of our “fast food” culture but it’s doable. Asparagus on the other hand gives “slow food” a whole new meaning. If you’ve been reading this blog for awhile you may remember our students planting asparagus seedlings in our garden. Click here to read about it. Yes, that’s right, it’s been almost a year. To this date the amount of asparagus that’s been eaten or should we say “tasted” from that planting would not equal a single serving size. The goal with asparagus is to let each plant develop and grow to the size where it won’t miss a few shoots of new growth each spring. Asparagus is a perennial plant that, when mature, can produce for twenty years but it can take two or three years before it reaches maturity. Even worse is that while waiting for that to happen, these plants send up shoots that look like the one pictured above. You know it’s crisp. You know it’s juicy. You know it’s delicious. You know that asparagus is the vegetable of kings. You know you can’t have it.
Why would anyone plant regular white cauliflower after finding out that it’s possible to grow cauliflower that looks like this?
Two classes of first and second graders tasted their “Champion of England” peas this week for the first time. There were just enough peas for everyone to taste two or three but there are many more to come. This heirloom variety did not disappoint these children who have waited so patiently. They were so sweet. (so were the kids.) Do you remember the first time you tasted a pea straight from the pod?