A clue should have been that my neighbor, also headed to the Bronx, planned to take the D train. “To the Grand Concourse?” I asked. We were both being too neighborly to suggest that the other was making a mistake. My mistake was not knowing in advance that I’d have to get off the 2 train at 96th Street with three bags of stuff for my workshop and hop on a crowded shuttle bus for the rest of the trip. Weekend construction. In the end, the bus ride was strangely luxurious (it is nice to travel aboveground after all), and I shared the trip with another neighbor going to the conference who told me about getting all his spring plant starts from seedlings in his compost bin.
Once inside Hostos Community College, the scene was thick with community gardeners and other workshop leaders dragging around duffle bags. No one else seemed to be carrying two bulky bags and a backpack. As usual, I had probably brought too much. This is the curse of the itinerant teacher, I guess. There is always one more thing that might help, and once I imagine myself making a point with that item, I can’t give it up.
The workshop, “Gardening From Toddlers to Teens: Teaching Kids About Gardening,” is based on my experiences teaching preschoolers about gardening and nature and organizing the children’s garden at the Clinton Community Garden. Last year’s co-presenter is now in her first year of college, so she couldn’t be with me and I missed her voice. While at Stuyvesant High School, she and a friend started a gardening club. Both saw a disconnect at their math-science school: Kids were studying advanced biology and chemistry but many had never planted a seed. (In fact, it seemed possible that Danielle was the only kid in a school of some 3,000 who belonged to a community garden.)
This year I had to go it alone. I came with a different plan for teaching the class and then altered it once again when I realized that the room would not be made up of a mix of teachers and people planning to start children’s gardens but families with a range of kids expecting activities. They turned out to be exactly what was needed: from a couple of five-year-olds who steadfastly observed changes as we soaked seeds in a dish of water to some older, serious, and very smart middle-schoolers, including a girl who had made her parents bring her so they could all learn more about gardening together. One of the adults was grandmother and aunt to a rotating group of toddlers (one was always on her lap) who spoke fiercely about wanting the kids in her life to know where their food came from.
One activity seemed to have the most impact: The plant box. I asked everyone to take something out of the box (a twig, some dried flowers, a pinecone, a piece of a dusty miller plant) and talk about it. The idea was not to worry about the scientific name but just to try to help us understand it using observation and anything that came to mind. Adults were asked to gear their explanations to children. One woman said that as a child she liked to tie a string to long pine needles to sew patterns on loosely woven burlap. Another remembered setting up a tiny play kitchen with the beans that fell from locust trees. A boy who had at first reluctantly joined cracked the hardest puzzle: a bag of scraggly-looking stuff. Is there anything we can do to make more sense of it? I asked. We decided to add water: “Seaweed!” he shouted.
And then we were done and it was time to pack up my three bags of stuff and bring it home, but not before the pleasant surprise of running into Roger Repohl, a Bronx beekeeper and community gardener, who has advised the Clinton Community Garden’s beekeepers. He was scheduled to give a class after mine. Roger teaches beekeeping all over the city and beyond.
Check out Wave Hill (www.wavehill.org) if you’re in need of a beekeeping class. It’s something I hope to be doing one day soon.