In late March it was pea planting time at Green Chimneys as Spring had come early to the garden. One of the day’s tasks was to plant two rows of peas, each row about 60 feet long. Eventually I would need to hang strings on poles so the peas could climb. One of the challenges when working with children in this area is getting them to plant either seedlings or seeds at a consistent space and depth. While some may believe that this type of rigor is unneeded, I believe that part of horticultural therapy is to persuade the child to tap into his or her intelligence and skill. I have found that when you have high expectations in the garden, they will often be met.
This turned out to be the case when I worked with Sheila to plant peas. When you plant a pea, you need to plant it between 1/2- and 1-inch deep and around 2 inches apart so they do not crowd each other. As I have discovered over the years, most children do not have a good concept of inches and a ruler or tape measure is not a good alternative to use. So what I do is to fabricate a template or tool to help the child.
Looking around the ground I found the perfect tool—A stick, which would serve three purposes.
1) Make a hole.
2) Measure the depth of the hole.
3) Measure the space needed to plant the seeds.
I first cut the stick so that a branch nub was 1/2 inch from the end. By pushing the stick into the ground, Sheila could make a hole for a pea as well as understand how deep to push the stick. I also cut a notch into the stick that was two inches from its other end. I told Sheila that she needed to space the peas far enough apart so that one pea would touch the end of the stick and the other touch the notch. She nodded and we started to plant.
With jobs like these, I let the child define the work and run the project. I become the helper and she the leader. What has been unusual when the traditional roles are reversed is that the child often wants to redefine the job to become more productive. For instance, when Sheila and I planted peas, I held the peas, she poked a hole in the soil, dropped a pea and then let me cover the pea up with soil.
She soon tired of this and decided instead to poke 10 holes at the same time, fill each with a pea and then move on. She also wanted to hold the peas, leaving me with nothing to do save put soil on top of each pea. With each 10 feet of row, she made subtle but time-saving changes in the job. By the end of our planting time together, I could barely keep up with her as she flew threw the effort and was ecstatic with her progress. We had planted 120 feet of peas in 40 minutes.
“I can’t believe we did all that work in such a short amount of time. That was fun,” said Sheila.
The same was true a few weeks later. The peas had poked their shoots through the soil and would be ready to grab a string in the next few weeks. It was time to build a trellis for the peas to latch onto. This exercise was a bit more time consuming as we had to lay out a line, wrap it and attach it to each pole and move on to the next one. Progress was compounded by the fact that the poles were 6 feet high and it was cumbersome to keep the string high and level.
Sheila didn’t make as much progress on this job as she was too short to do it by herself. Thus she depended on me much more than when she was planting peas and was not as inventive in discovering a better and faster way to lay out the lines. We only got lines done for half of one row. I needed to work with other children to finish the job.
One of the other children, Mike, threw himself into the job and discovered a better and faster way to lay out the lines. He formed loops and twisted the twine around the pole with a single deft motion. It was impressive to see him so motivated.
“This is the best thing we have ever done in the garden!” Mike exclaimed.
Ironically, Mike was shorter than Sheila but was able to come up with a more effective method of working. He turned his disadvantage into something he wanted to overcome rather than conquer him. Our time together flew by and before we realized, it was time to return to class.
Mike had done such a good job I rewarded him with a stalk of asparagus and a lemon leaf (sorrel.) He munched on them as we walked back to class happy in his success and looking forward to working in the garden next week.