Growing Garden – Summer 2019
by Kayli O’Donnell
I turn my radio off as I pull up into the tall grasses that lead me into the garden. With my windows down, I’m introduced to the soundscape of Common Roots Farm. Red Winged Black Birds and Mourning Doves sing their hellos from the middle of the road, only choosing to flutter away when my salamander-like car crawls dangerously near.
I first worked in this soil when I was 19 years old, a sophomore in college. Forest Donja-Keys, Growing Garden’s first farmer and educator, and I spent our days digging perennial beds and perfecting pathways. It was here, in the garden, that I started to understand how ecosystems like this, so intimately tied to human life, can teach us what our own systems need to be healthy. This type of learning comes through intuition—and so it begins with our children.
I studied Dietetics, Nutrition, and Food Science with a minor in Food Systems during my years at the University of Vermont. Throughout that education, my understanding of the problems involving our food became more and more complex. Most of the time, complex systemic challenges make me feel powerless and small…but with nutrition, I have always come back to an elegantly simple starting place: grow some plants, share them, and in doing so empower the young people in your community by feeding them good food and nourishing their connection to the land.
The food we’re familiar with is very far removed from soil. When you get your greens in a plastic bag, and your carrots are teeny cylindrical orange bites, are you moved to consider the resources that went into their creation? Without people coming to that gratitude on their own, how will we cultivate a motivation to be good stewards of the land that feeds us? There is so much magic, and so many important teachings, that are forgotten in a worldview that allows food’s story to begin in a grocery store.
The children’s arrival at the farm is announced in the sound of collective giggles and jumbled stories moving from abstract to clear as they walk across the farm to Growing Gardens. Eventually I see their tiny feet beneath the willow row stepping along the path. We begin in a circle on my tapestry, or beneath the tepee, or under the “veggie shack” shade structure recently built behind the tool shed. Today, I tell them, there is lots to do and I’m so glad I have so many strong helpers to take care of this beautiful garden.
Growing Garden’s purpose is to cultivate a connection to food. It is where kids feel instinctually moved to take a bite of a plant that smells yummy, or lay like a starfish on a bed of clover. It is where the story of food has its own voice. We push seeds into soil with tiny fingers and say, “Good luck!” We water. We weed. We harvest. We clean, cut, and combine to make a delicious and nourishing meal.
Growing Gardens, Growing Kids is a program by Common Roots that hosts field trips during the summer. For the past two years the Farm to School educator has moved to Growing Gardens at the end of the school year to educate from the source. During the year, Farm to School education is taught in all three South Burlington elementary schools. Common Root’s farm supplies fresh produce for taste tests in each and every classroom, once a month, combined with a lesson and activity. Growing Gardens continues during the school year when teachers bring their classes to the garden for field trips held on Fridays until the end of the season.
This summer Growing Gardens has hosted upwards of 150 children, all of whom left the garden at the end of the day with bags full of fresh food that they harvested themselves. They collected their bounty only after hours of tending, playing, and engaging with the plants that would later feed them. A reciprocal relationship such as this creates respect; only when you give care do you get cared for. It instills a feeling of being lovingly held by the earth, of being taken care of by the gifts of plants. This is how we may plant a seed in our youth that grows and nourishes throughout their lives.