Sowing Seeds…

Dateline: Early January, 2012

Olivewood’s winter garden is lush and green, and surprisingly, this presents its own set of challenges for the class of excited third graders wiggling and squirming on the hay bales as Sacha starts opening circle. Nearby, the wheat has grown high and celadon green, topped with whiskery spikes of plumping, yellowing kernels just beginning to flop. Beside it, an artichoke plant is ghostly pale, but broad and leafy, and in another planter, Martha’s prized heirloom peacock broccoli is striped an unlikely magenta with tiny purple buds at its crown.

“Who can tell me what season it is?” Sacha asks to get things rolling. For several blocks, walking to the garden from their nearby elementary school, keeping warm pulling their sweatshirt sleeves down over tight fists, the kids have been chattering, remembering their last field trip and who cooked what in the kitchen, quizzing and grilling and teasing each other in the ritual to determine who’s smartest, and several anxious hands fly fast up into the air. But, inevitably, the blurted, spontaneous answers come quicker. “Oh!…Oh!…January!” a triumphant boy with a spiky, gelled flat top shouts, and across the circle from him a group of girls replies in giggles, the singular sound of their peals of laughter declaring the bonds of their tight friendship. One of them (with a languid eye roll that says she’ll set the record straight) declares forcefully, “No…” (subtext, “Duh…”) “It’s 2012.” Sacha raises a finger to her lips to remind them all of the garden rules—No calling out!—but nods her head encouragingly. “That’s right,” she says kindly. “But what season is it?” she presses. Uncertain now, one by one, the hands flutter back down like leaves as the girls and boys continue to poke each other but fall timidly silent, glancing at Sacha and their teacher and the handful of parents along for the day to see if any will provide an answer, or maybe just a clue. What season is it? Until finally, courageously, one small girl with big glasses and a long ponytail ventures an uncertain answer, looking around her for evidence at the vines snaking up the bean teepee and the pea pods that twine along the fence line. “Um,” she whispers, so softly her words almost drift away on the morning breeze, “Spring?”

It’s both funny and somewhat sweetly heartbreaking at the same time.

Welcome to a typical day in the garden.

The birth of this blog finds us at the very beginning of just our second year, and eager to start sharing stories like these with you from our day-to-day adventures in the garden and the kitchen. Because every day here is eye opening and reaffirms our work and our purpose. Like, it’s February now, and still we find ourselves, weeks later, remembering and retelling that story from a month ago. To that darling girl’s credit, Olivewood in winter does defy expectations, even if you have (but especially if you’ve never) encountered a garden before. The growth, the green, is positively mesmerizing. And the reality of the Olivewood world is that, for the majority of the children who set foot on our grounds, getting into the dirt—weeding and planting and harvesting and composting—is a totally novel experience, something from way outside the realm of their common experience. We do have our fair share of veterans by this time of year—the kids returning for their second and third field trips (each class from our core outreach program visits three times total over the course of a school year)—but even for them, the garden is perpetually changing. For that girl and for the whole January group of third graders, for example, the last time they were at Olivewood, corn stalks and spears of hot pink-tipped amaranth grew where by January the earth was being warmed under a covering of black plastic and a thick layer of hay. The last time they were at Olivewood, some of those kids had helped pluck and husk ears of corn for the kitchen. And where in Fall the three sister vines twined, beans and squash inter-planted among the corn, in January there were several richly-composted circular beds wrapped in flexible wire netting to keep the critters out of the herbs and the broad-leafed collards.

By design, it often happens like that here: At Olivewood, presented with an actual garden, with a living laboratory, our kids find that their knowledge about the natural world isn’t particularly secure. It isn’t rooted. In a classroom, for instance, you learn that the seasons are straightforward: in summer the sun shines; leaves fall and plants whither in autumn; the earth goes to sleep in winter; and it awakens in lively growth in the spring. But back in January—in the very middle of the middle of mid-winter—there that class was, surrounded by fruits and vegetables, flowers and succulents, so that when Sacha gently helped them to the correct answer to the question, “What season is it?”—(“It’s winter, you guys!”)—what they thought they knew, based on their classroom lessons, was challenged right to the very core.

Again…Welcome to a typical day in the garden.