Ladybugs and Carrots: My Year in a Preschool Garden
I had ambitious plans this year when it came to the garden at my daughter’s preschool. I was determined to turn this overgrown and neglected plot into something enchanting. At first I scoured the Internet, soaking up inspiration for darling garden projects. We would plant sunflowers in old rain boots! We would make fairy gardens! It would be so incredibly adorable.
In July, armed with a pick and a hand saw, I tamed the weeds and some rogue shrubs. The small garden had good bones: two sturdy raised beds, and pots that could be reused. We just needed some good soil and some plants. Getting the supplies donated was, surprisingly, the easy part. In our area, you can’t throw a spade without hitting a school garden, so the avenues for seeking donations were well paved. Gardeners are generous people. By the time school started, I had bags of soil, a salvaged planter box, and two gigantic shoe boxes full of seeds. Time to get growing.
I began by starting a lot of the seeds at home in six-pack planter pots, then when they sprouted I had the kids transplant the small veggies and flowers into the garden. I learned quickly to begin with twice as many plants as I thought I would need. I feel that the old saying definitely applies here: curiosity killed the carrot. In the spirit of earnest exploration, many plants were plucked, trampled and drowned. I had to keep thinking, it’s not a problem, I have another six pack of pansies right here, ready to go in the ground. Grab your shovels, kiddos, and start digging!
Just Add Water
I learned to start at the beginning. Preschoolers are new to this world, and the simplest truths are worth visiting. When a young child who has never gardened before waters a plant, she will inevitably pour water on the biggest leaf. This leads to a discussion: How do plants drink? Do they drink through their leaves? No, they drink through their roots! How do you get water to the roots? You water the soil!
Kids LOVE adding water to soil. There’s alchemy in combining the two to make that most magical substance: mud! If you want to entertain a child for hours, give them water, a watering can and some dirt. I would fill a large plastic bin with water, and the children would file by, dipping their watering cans into the bin one by one, and then head over to the garden. Inevitably, a child would focus on a single plant and douse it with water over and over until it was swimming in mud, while all of the other plants around it remained dry. I love that single-mindedness and concentration. All that matters in this moment is watering this one plant; all the rest can wait. It reminded me of a quote from buddhist teacher Edward Espe Brown, where he says, “When you wash the rice, wash the rice,” meaning, when you have a task, focus your full attention on it. These kids were naturals, a shining example of Buddhist philosophy in action.
A school garden by necessity is a winter/spring garden. By the time the kids and I got planting it was already September. Luckily, we live in a place where a year-round garden is totally doable. But, it also means no flashy summer veggies, like tomatoes, corn or even pumpkins. Bush beans, peas, strawberries and lettuces were all fairly successful for us. It’s a real thrill for a child to search for a sweet sugar snap hidden in the leaves, and then to pop it into his mouth. The beans we planted were a fun heirloom variety that grew yellow beans instead of the typical green, and the kids were delighted by them. But there was nothing quite like the one day that will go down in history as: The Day We Picked the Carrots.
In October we scattered carrot seeds. Soon there were sprouts, and one day I plucked one from the dirt to show the kids a teeny-tiny carrot, barely an inch long. I told them that when the plants were bigger we could pick the rest. After that, every time my back was turned curious little fingers were plucking seedlings from the earth. It’s amazing that any of them survived, but they did. One day in February I decided to let them go at it. Carrots emerged from the dirt, about three inches long and perfect. The children were euphoric, delighted by this plant. It’s hidden underground! They crunched the sweet roots between their teeth with wonder. I was told that after that many of the children began asking their parents questions about the food they were eating. Is it a root? Does it grow underground, like a carrot? The spark of curiosity about where their food comes from had been lit.
For the rest of the year I couldn’t plant anything else in the plot where the carrots had grown. All plants sprouting there would immediately be plucked from the dirt, assumed to be carrots.
One day in our organic garden we released some ladybugs. I purchased a cup of them from our local garden center, and before opening it we talked about how ladybugs are helpful for a garden. They eat aphids! And I shared some fun ladybug facts, such as, did you know that ladybugs can swim? The preschoolers were so excited.
We opened the cup and I sprinkled some ladybugs into each of their outstretched hands. The beetles crawled up arms, tickling and causing lots of giggles. Hundreds of ladybugs swarmed our small garden. And then some began to fly away. Afraid to let them go, the kids scooped the insects back into jars and sealed them tight, only to set them free again. Capture and release, over and over. It seemed like they were practicing the art of letting go, the same practice that I as a parent work on every day. As my children get older, how do I, as a parent, begin to let go?
The school year has come to a close, and thinking back, I see that our garden was never the picture-perfect vision of cuteness that I though it would be. Sometimes it looked downright scruffy. But the children loved being there, and some even said that “garden Wednesdays” were their favorite part of school. Although we did make a fairy garden (really, how could I resist that?) I found that the activities that really resonated with the children were the most simple ones: seeing and touching the different seeds, putting their hands in the dirt, adding water, and seeing the seeds that they planted grow. The garden was all theirs, a grand experiment where a child could witness, sometimes for the very first time, a seed placed into soil by his own hand sprout leaves, flowers, and then produce something that could be eaten and tasted. A place where they were free to grow their understanding of their natural world. In watching them, I was able to feel again what all of us must have felt when our world was new; that life emerging from a tiny seed really is an amazing feat of magic.