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Looking for a non-Zoom or non-Google Classroom activity to wind down the pandemic school year of distance or hybrid learning? Maybe you and your kids are as sick of staring at computer screens for hours on end as we are.
Try gardening. There’s nothing quite like digging in the soil and getting all muddy. Read on to discover why gardening is the answer to schoolwork doldrums and pent-up frustrations. And, find out our gardening strategy made for a climate crisis.
No child left inside
During my 12 years as a homeschooling mom, I prided myself on turning G.W.’s policy on its head.
Even when living in an apartment town home for six years, my three kiddos and I spent a lot of time at our outdoor “schools” — including neighborhood playgrounds, state parks, lakes, and beaches. We covered all the traditional subjects at one time or another in a multi-disciplinary manner, beginning with whatever my three little ones were intrigued with at the time.
Education at its best.
It was perfectly natural, then, for my kids and I to set up container gardening in our little 10 ft. x 15 ft. front yard. We always started from seeds that they had retrieved from last year’s harvest and stored away. We tracked growth in a garden journal, complete with colored drawings and measurements.
When we moved to a single family home, we got more adventurous, experimenting with raised beds and screened in areas after losing way too many berries to our voracious feathered friends raising families. The hanging metal pie plates and scarecrows didn’t do the job!
By this time my kids were old enough to construct the raised beds from wood and nails. And they were tall enough to string the netting from post to post.
My, how they loved mixing soils and soil amendments! Can’t forget our “black gold” from our compost tumbler. Turning that thing upside down every day was fun. Got messy, too, if the top wasn’t on tight enough and some composting liquid squeezed out. Ugh!
Preparing the soils was almost like baking up a cake from scratch by mixing and blending many different ingredients. The only difference was that the final goodies arrived months later instead of only an hour or so.
Now, we are seasoned gardeners after years of doing vegetable and berry plots of some sort. Last March, when school lockdown first gripped us, we were all too dazed and confused to do anything. It was as if we were frozen in space and time.
Maybe you can relate?
But this year, a return to a favorite family and learning activity was in order. Time to pick up the trowel, shovel again, and dig down deep!
Pandemic gardening 101
To celebrate the (almost) end of distance schooling in March, I invited my usually nonchalant older teens (10th, 12th and first-year college) to set up their own containers for a springtime garden. I was pleasantly surprised to notice a sparkly gleam of enthusiasm in their eyes when I made the announcement so I knew I was on to something.
Just anything to get them off their computer screens and see the light of day.
Maybe I was witnessing a touch of nostalgia on their parts? Fond memories of gargantuan watermelons — or was it the neighborhood seed-spitting contests? Possibly visions of the multi-layered fresh tomato and mayo sandwiches they piled on and on? But nothing beat the sweet blueberries and cherries (before the birds ate them all!) that they enjoyed every June.
So, we rolled up our sleeves and got to work, longing for a light at the end of the tunnel as a full pandemic school year entered its home stretch. Desperate for “normalcy” — whatever that was.
Each one of my kids and I chose our favorite vegetables:
Daughter: green beans and kale
Son #1: potatoes
Son #2: bell peppers
Mom: broccoli and kale
You observe no substantial overlap in this lineup, (except kale gets two rave reviews in our home), so, all in all, we’re well-rounded, at least.
I was relieved to see my children return to their roots (pun intended) and tend to the soil, encouraging the miracle of life to erupt once again as it has since it first emerged from a primordial soup of chemicals that organized itself into life billions of years ago.
This time the only difference is using seeds holding the life force dormant until the proper conditions of the right temperature and moisture level arrived. Nurturing growth in a year brutally marked by exponential death and disease, much of it completely unnecessary if only we had had a real leader in the White House, feels really gratifying.
Starting anew — literally and symbolically — with gardening.
Note: We used some seeds that I had saved from a local farm’s produce last season. I also purchased some from a small, woman-owned seed cooperative called Sow True Seed in North Carolina. I prefer to support this type of small business rather than huge agribusiness corporations that wallow in profits from climate-destroying pesticides and synthetic fertilizers that they pass off to unaware consumers. Better for people and planet to go against the tide.
The best parts were that: (1) The seeds arrived in a recyclable paper envelope (Yeah! No plastic bubble envelope that can’t be recycled); and (2) Cost fractions of a penny on a seed by seed basis.
Since kale and broccoli will keep on producing well into December in my area, it’s a purchase that keeps on giving. (The best type!)
Tip: I accelerated eco-friendly germination by planting the seeds in a cardboard egg carton placed on the dashboard of our minivan. With the windows closed, the van functioned as a mobile greenhouse even if it were chilly outside during the day. Since we keep our house at 60 degrees most of the time through early spring, germination wouldn’t take off otherwise. We’d be waiting until July when it gets to 85 degrees or more inside to see cotyledons!
Gardening in a climate crisis
The last time we grew a garden, in 2019, we used raised beds. The changing climate wreaked havoc on our success (or lack thereof).
First, insects were horrible! The hot, wet weather brought them out in droves. Since I’d never spray environmentally harmful pesticides at our home, we spent a lot of time manually removing bugs from our tender, young plants. We also used a plant-based oil product that we mixed up ourselves as an all-natural insect repellent.
Second, the extreme heatwaves were unbearable for many young plants that succumbed all too quickly to the blisteringly scorching rays. The sun was just too powerful for their baby leaves that wilted due to the relentless exposure as if to say “Get us outta here!”
Third, we experienced torrential thunderstorms on several occasions. Rain poured down in windy sheets, destroying many plants by just ripping off or permanently bending stems and branches.
It was too much destruction to risk again.
So, this year I proposed that we use containers instead. Reusing ones from plants bought at a local nursery in years past, my rationale was to be able to relocate the plants and place them on a shady, screened-in back deck when needed.
Whenever the bugs got out of control, the sun was too penetrating, or the rain was too heavy, we’d whisk them to safety. Later, once they had a chance to de-stress and recupe, we’d return them outside.
At least, this is the plan. If you really want to know how it’s going, email me for updates on how this strategy actually works out.
But, we’re feeling good about it right now. 🙂
3 reasons to do pandemic gardening now
Your own garden represents hope for fresh starts and new beginnings.
And brand new research supports how beneficial gardening is to reduce stress. It’s called garden therapy.
Infographic Source: Chalmin-Pui, L.S. (2021)
For people wondering why gardening is helpful now at the end of a mostly or exclusively virtual school year, I suggest three reasons.
1. Gardening refocuses attention
It’s been really a struggle for many kids to keep their heads in the game when it comes to distance learning. In a past article, I discussed ways to overcome distraction during distance learning.
One of those ways was to make learning hands-on. See how a garden is perfect for this? Great for being knees-on, too. 🙂
To encourage your kids to finish through to the end in a few weeks when it’s already warm outside and they want to get out anyway, providing an outlet to a creative gardening project will signal to them that there’s a world beyond virtual school waiting for them — literally out their front door.
Tip: Why not tell your child’s teacher about your family project? It’s very easy to integrate gardening into academic lesson plans, especially in science or health class. Reading about war victory gardens or the beginnings of agriculture in social studies or history is another way to work it in.
Math? Sure! Think about the spatial area of your garden plot (if you’re doing a backyard garden or raised beds), and how many seeds to plant according to spacing recommendations listed on the seed packet.
For container gardening, we’re doing 1–2 plants/5-gallon container.
Get out your rulers! There’s also math in measuring the depth of planting each variety of seed. Or how potatoes have their own special way of growing in a garden and what to do first. (It’s easy.)
Reading and writing about their garden in language arts class is an obvious choice, both fiction and non-fiction, poetry or prose.
2. Gardening re-energizes minds and bodies
Sitting is not healthy. It’s a stress, in fact, for the human body to be in that position. So get moving!
Growing minds and bodies need to move in order to develop correctly, too.
Whether you set up containers on a porch, window sill, or deck, or plant in raised beds/ground, your kids will necessarily have to move around. Work that soil side by side with them!
You may wish to spend all of one afternoon getting organized, or go out for an hour or two during the day over the course of a week or two. Little by little, your garden will take shape.
Of course, it’s not a once and done deal. You will need to water, add fertilizer periodically, remove bugs, etc. In between classes and during breaks, your kiddos now have their very own project far away from a screen. Wonderful!
Help them own it by reminding them of all the delicious fruits and vegetables they’re growing and will get to enjoy soon! (That is, assuming you keep the insects and birds under control and prevent extreme weather from getting the upper hand.)
3. Gardening retools their skillset
There’s no doubt that gardening is both an art and a science. Especially when you’re nurturing an organic garden, there are tips and tricks needed to make it work. You’ll probably run into road blocks and setbacks now and then, but it’s possible to get it to all work out.
If we can do it, so can you! Just keep at it through trial and error. Year after year, you’ll gain mastery.
Feeling capable of growing a living thing for the purpose of feeding yourself and your family — or class, if it’s a school project — will boost your child’s self-esteem. Gardening is empowering as well as therapy!
At a time when very little seems under their control, and they may still stumble in virtual school, nurturing a garden will help fortify their sense of personal accomplishment and resilience. It’ll bring them back down to Earth after living in virtual reality for so long. Win-win!
Takeaways: Why gardening in a pandemic?
As the pandemic school year grinds to an end, I was looking for a way to do something healthy and outside with and for my virtual learning-possessed and frequently virtual school-obsessed teenagers. Can you relate?
It was way past time to refocus, re-energize, and retool. We’ve all had our fill of too much Zoom, too much virtual reality, and not enough hands-on, outside, and creative experience as a family.
The reasons for this are many, but center around how disruptive Covid-19 has been to our usual routines and lifestyle.
The Covid-19 death of a loved one or a special teacher has been excruciatingly painful to bear. Too much needless death, dying, and long-term disease. In a previous article, I discuss several strategies for how to help kids and teens cope with grief and loss.
Mental health experts predict that the societal and personal fallout, including for kids, has yet to really kick in — but it will — and be with us for a long time.
For many children, this year has been their first encounter with sudden, unexpected death. We are all still trying to come to grips with it.
Parents of these kids are understandably stressed and searching for ways to deal with death and dying issues. In other articles, I have suggested ways adults can assist children and teens to come to grips with so much personal loss.
Here, I turn the spotlight on gardening as a form of therapy for dealing with loss and healing from it. However, in making this suggestion, I in no way intend to trivialize the pain and suffering caused by the global pandemic of so many. It is real.
But I also know that doing novel things if you’re new to gardening may distract you from so much sadness and lift your mood.
Or, returning to gardening as a safe, familiar family practice, (almost like a seasonal tradition), may provide some temporary relief from the trauma. Just getting out of your own head sometimes and paying attention to something else may help.
Who couldn’t use a dose of sunshine, blue skies, and baby plants in need of nurturing?
If nothing else, it’s worth a try. You have little to lose (except clean hands for a little while) and loads to gain (a bountiful, end-of-summer harvest).
This post was previously published on medium.com.
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