I have always thought it is better to be lucky than good and that has certainly been the case since our return to the North as we were met by the warmest mid-March weather that I can remember in a long time. By early last week, the cold was but a memory with only a few rapidly decaying piles of dirty icy snow remaining in the back of parking lots. At home, everything had melted and we were starting to clean up the garden.
More importantly it was time to return to Green Chimneys to pick up where I left off with my kids. Like my yard, the Children’s Garden had thawed and beginning to push out growth. This year we had build many more hoop houses than in years past resulting in an early jump for planting. Last year at this time the ground was frozen and not ready to be worked; this year because of the protective nature of the hoop houses, many of the rows were ready for sowing.
While I was gone, Tracy and Allie had harvested all the carrots from one of the raised beds. The turnip greens I had planted in the fall were recovering in another row and will be ready for harvest in the next month. A row of spinach that we had planted as a lark last September wintered over nicely with tiny rosettes 4-inches in diameter. It was exceptionally sweet.
On my first day back I was greeted with 70 degree weather as well as a new group of students. All of the children were excited to be back in the garden. I tasked my first charge, Linda, to clean up our herb garden and dress it up with Sweet Peat. I gave Linda a pair of garden pruners and we started to remove old stalks of mint.
I asked her if she remembered what herb was here before. She didn’t.
“Rub your hands on the stalks and see if you can remember,” I said. She removed her gloves and rubbed the stalks against her two hands and moved them to her nose. At first she looked puzzled but then she smiled and said, “It’s mint, isn’t it?”
I had her do the same to the herbs that we were not cutting including some creeping thyme, oregano and lavender. The freshness of the herbs seemed to refresh her as she tired. When she started to become either bored or had difficulty with the task, we would take a quick aromatherapy break and I would ask her what each herb reminded her of. Lavender reminded her of perfume. Most children identify oregano as the pizza herb.
I had my next set of children work in our Row for the Hungry, which had produced over 100 pounds of food for a local food pantry in 2009. To start the season, we needed to add compost. Our pile of compost was over six foot high and much of it was still frozen. I instructed Ben to work around the edges rather than dig into the middle. He would not listen and kept striking the side of the pile ineffectually. He started to become frustrated.
“Ben, if you go with your shovel around the sides and top it will be much easier,” I said. “Let me show you.”
I took the shovel and started to scrape off the warm compost from the top and the sides of the pile. Ben looked on and asked how did I know that the top would be melted.
“Ben, this pile was rock solid only a few weeks ago but since then the sun has been warming it up so parts have started to melt. It takes a long time, however, for the sun and warmth to reach the middle of the pile, which is why it is still too hard to shovel. By removing the top and sides of the pile, we are helping the sun melt the pile faster.”
Ben seemed to understand and he filled up the wheelbarrow many times using the technique I showed him. He was happy to be working up a sweat and getting the bed ready for planting.
I took my next charge, Eric, to the cold frame near the greenhouse to collect the lettuce. Our cold frames are both thrifty and clever. We use rotting bales of hay to build a space next to one of our greenhouses and place old storm windows on top to capture the sun during the day and discarded horse blankets in the evening to hold the heat. These structures are actually warm frames as the rotting hay creates heat via an exothermic reaction. When I arrived at Green Chimneys in the morning it was 37 degrees yet the warm frame was emitting billows of steam. We use them to harden off the seedlings that had been started in prior weeks before placing them into the garden.
As we were removing the storm windows, I had Eric place his hand within the first layer of hay. “That’s really hot,” he said. I then explained to him that the decaying hay was generating heat, which in turn kept our seedlings warm. He thought it was cool that old hay would heat our plants.
In looking over our stock, we had a good selection of vegetables to choose from: broccoli, lettuce, arugula, cauliflower and spinach. I grabbed a flat and a half of romaine lettuce, placed the cell packs in the wagon and started with Eric back to the garden.
Though the wagon was weighted down, Eric kept digging in to pull it. On a few occasions he wanted to have me pull it but I told him I would help him, but not do his job for him. He understood and we shared the task.
Eric and Fred, my next student, would spend the rest of their time planting lettuce. It takes a bit of dexterity to separate the seedlings from the cell pack but after a few simple demonstrations, each was able to remove the root balls intact. Both students were amazed to see how the intertwined roots held the soil in the rectangular shape of each cell. Thin white roots contrasting against the dark soil created an interesting pattern that was unique to each seedling. On the rare occasions when the soil fell apart, each thought that they had ruined or killed the plant. I assured each that the plant was fine and if we tenderly placed it into the hole we had dug, it would grow well.
When working with children who are planting seedlings, I have found that the best way to work is as a team switching jobs with the student and letting the student take the lead in determining how we should plant the seedlings. Both Eric and Fred, however, liked to remove the seedlings from the cell pack and plant them leaving me to dig the holes.
The children are beginning to get used to working in the garden in all seasons. All were hoping for a veggie snack, but there was little to be had. The sorrel was just beginning to come up and we had very small rosettes of spinach and leaves of romaine lettuce. I gave each child a bit of lettuce and spinach telling them to be a bit patient as food would be forthcoming in the next month or so. They nodded with approval.