DOWN TO EARTH

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Recently I attended the “Ripe from Downtown
Symposium” in Cleveland. Sponsored by the Cleveland Botanical
Garden, it sought to bring together people from across the country
who work with youth garden projects.

My reason for attending this conference was to present two
programs on youth garden projects. As the subject of youth gardens
can cover a wide range of projects, prior to presenting at the
“Ripe” conference I began a dialog with various people from similar
projects around the country to discuss their definitions for a
youth garden. I visited with folks at the Minnesota Landscape
Arboretum in Minneapolis, where I found that their youth garden
project is primarily a teaching garden. I visited with folks in San
Antonio and Philadelphia, where their gardens are completely hands
on.

After visiting with many others in similar projects, I soon came
up with a firm idea for what constitutes a youth garden project; I
also discovered two distinct differences of opinion about such
gardening projects. The philosophy of one, which I came to call the
“Minnesota Model,” involves building displays that entice children
to come and see the plants and roots and learn how the garden
grows.

The other, which I call the “Philadelphia Model,” assigns a
piece of land to each child, or a communal piece that they work on
together, and the children are taught how to plan, till, plant,
tend and harvest a garden. Both models have great merit and each
uses a very different approach.

When I arrived in Cleveland, I admit I was expecting the
conference to be peopled mostly with administrative types along
with lots of well-meaning volunteers. What I found, instead, was a
hard-working bunch of dedicated adults and children. Imagine my
surprise at finding that a symposium on youth garden projects would
actually include kids!

The children–ages 10 through 18–who came to this symposium were
not kids wishing they were elsewhere. They didn’t hang back,
looking as though they felt their lives would be improved if they
could just get their hands on a PlayStation 2. No, these kids had
notebooks; they asked questions; they followed the adults around
and asked for clarification. There were kids from 29 states, this
time with adults in tow. They brought with them displays of their
own, examples of what they produced in their own gardens.

We tasted salsa and maple syrup, viewed displays of how land
gets polluted and worked on dozens of other projects dreamed up and
created by the young people. We toured the Cleveland Botanical
Garden’s Youth Garden Project, which is exemplary. In that project,
small garden plots are assigned to individuals and teams of young
people. They’re taught how to start seedlings, how to weed and
mulch and water, then they’re turned loose to make a real garden.
Some choose flowers to be added to theirs, some have more herbs
than others, but all are encouraged to grow some tomatoes. The
children harvest the tomatoes in addition to the basil, garlic,
onions and peppers they grow throughout the season and turn them
into “Ripe From Downtown Salsa,” which is vacuum-packed for sale.
Sale proceeds from the salsa plow money back into the garden
projects.

One young man, probably 11 years old, sat on the front row of
both of my programs writing in his notebook. I assumed that nothing
in the marketing program would be of interest, so he must be doing
artwork. Later, when I was sitting at lunch, I learned different.
The boy’s mother asked if she and the boy could join me. As we ate
and visited, the young man said to me, “I have a question. Wait, I
have to turn to my notes,” and as he thumbed through, he grinned at
me and said, “I took three pages of notes in your last program. I
hope you don’t mind.”

I went to the conference with modest hopes for learning and
sharing about youth garden projects. What I came away with was a
renewed optimism that young, new gardeners are coming along behind
us. I see that new eyes and minds will continue the very love of
plants we gardeners share. In one young man’s eyes and notes, I saw
the hope for the newer generation. There is a strong future for
gardening and it exists in our young people.

Jim Long’s newest book, It Won’t Hurt to Try It (Long Creek
Herbs, 2003), based on an 1859 Civil War-era herb formulas diary,
can be seen at www.longcreekherbs.com. Readers’ questions and
comments are always welcome at Lcherbs@tri-lakes.net.

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