The Garden as Classroom

Doesn’t it seem like there used to be more gardens? When I was a kid in the 1970s and 80s, my parents kept a huge garden by today’s standards — a full city lot planted with corn, dill, radishes, cucumbers, potatoes, tomatoes and green peppers, all framed by a few stately and towering sunflowers. It was straight out of Sunset Magazine, before we knew there was a Sunset Magazine. I kid you not, random drivers would pull over in their mid-1970’s Impalas or ozone-defying Fleetwoods (about as a big as the garden itself) to have a look. My mom and dad took pride in that garden, leveraging every ounce of their OCD pre-diagnoses to measure the rows carefully; and keep it fertilized, weeded, and watered, producing bumper crops every year. It wasn’t just fruitful, it was beautiful.

But where have all the gardens gone? When we can find them at all, they're confined to the country or to tiny single-plantings in the city. Are they shrinking with our interest, or with our time? Granted, our lives have become busier just making ends meet. Our jobs are Job One and hobby gardening has been relegated to some artisanal activity of the Martha Stewart set or act of revolution by the country homesteader. Gardens have lost their ubiquity.

Without realizing it at the time, my brother and I learned quite a bit from that family garden, and I can’t help but think there are a lot of kids growing up today without the valuable tutorial gardens can give. We learned how to plan a project, embrace seasonal cycles, nurture crops, grow organically, harvest, preserve, and have a decent dirt clod fight. We must have implicitly began to understand we were eating well by our own exertion and taken a certain pride in that autonomy. Even more, we were outside working as a family — tending to the garden, walking the rows, and hauling in our bounty.

My brother and I also learned a bit about marketing and selling. It may seem quaintly bucolic by today’s standards, but we walked door-to-door with buckets full of sweet corn, juicy red tomatoes, huge cucumbers, and potatoes, selling the extra produce to our neighbors. Our target market was anyone we could walk to with those produce-laden buckets. Back then, anyone we could manage to get to on foot was someone my parents knew and probably a person who’d lived in the community for years. I can’t remember if we only did cold-calls or if word got around and my parents set up our route for us, but selling was easy. Whether the produce sold itself or folks were charmed by our little business model, we always came home with pockets full and buckets empty.

Here’s the clincher (and don’t roll your eyes; it’s all true): My brother and I used our "bucket fund" as spending money at the State Fair every year. The cherry on this whole learning sundae was money management. Those quarters and dollars were all saved for a purpose and by August we were quite the fat cats on the roller coaster and giant slide — two little bucket boys on a corporate holiday. My parents must have had wry smiles on their faces at the genius of their method: exercise, sunshine, green thumbs, an organic diet, and money management skills all courtesy of a single garden every year. Brilliant.

I’m encouraged by the new Lawns-to-Gardens Movement and by what appears to be a growing locavore mentality. It may just revive our nation’s gardens and take a few kids out of the lawn-mower business and put them in sun hats behind tillers. Vive le jardin!

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