Sowing the Seeds of Change in Chicago: The New “Gardeneers”

kids as seeds

Happily cross-posted from the Food Day blog.

About forty children were crouched into small balls on the ground in front of vegetable planters. “Let’s pretend we’re seeds,” Adam Zmick, a former Teach-for-America instructor, told them. “What do seeds need to grow?” Hands shot up eagerly from down near ground level.

On a sunny Tuesday earlier this week, at Rowe Elementary School in a low-income neighborhood of Chicago, I visited a worksite of the new Gardeneers, a small organization started last fall that is bringing gardening services and education to public schools in the Chicago area. The group was founded by Adam and May Tsupros, and has already enrolled five schools. Four of their five locations have 90 percent or higher levels of subsidized lunches.

The conversation that day between the Gardeneers and the students included how to plant seeds and water them, the parts of plants and their functions, and the balance of nitrogen with other nutrients in the soil. Pickling came up, logically connected to the talk of cucumbers, and the kids rated the vegetables that they liked (and didn’t like) to eat.

Gardeneers’ new programs provide consistent support and curriculum on nutrition, biology and health to accompany the planting, nurturing and watering of seedlings by the students, some early in the spring on classroom windowsills. May explained, “About half of the schools that start gardens cannot maintain them through the school year. So we started a program to ensure that unused space is well maintained, all throughout the year.”

The Gardeneers are ambitious, aiming to grow the program to include 25 schools as early as next spring. They also hope, wherever possible, that the garden’s harvests will be used in the schools as supplements to snacks or meals. Because they are certified in Illinois’ Garden to Cafeteria program, they are well able to take the steps to manage food safely and to track their results.

As research shows, they are finding that the programs fill a need. “Many preschoolers don’t know what a root is, and they think that food only comes from a store,” said Adam. “The kids get excited when the radishes appear, and one girl told me that this was the first time she had ever tried lettuce.”

The curriculum is flexible and evolving – the lessons can involve biology, math, art, nutrition or practical skills like cooking. And the close observation and patience that students develop are good practice for scientific endeavors of all kinds. The Gardeneers also send students home with seeds and plants to care for, which invests children in the ups and downs of living organisms.

Their work is supported by foundation grants and funding for wellness programs at several of the schools. They form the latest addition to an active network of organizations in Chicago working to transform the urban landscape. With WBEZ Chicago and other partners, the group is currently planning an upcoming Day of Action in which the students will take their extra plants to houses in the neighborhood, and help residents to install their own small gardens.

One plant at a time and one student at a time, the Gardeneers are increasing awareness of healthier foods and showcasing the simple but practical steps needed to sustain them in the city.

You can read more about their efforts on Food Tank, and support their work here.

GardeneersThe Gardeneers –Margo Mejia, Randy Jamrok. May Tsupros, Amanda Fieldman and Adam Zmick.

FieldmanFieldman working with students at Rowe Elementary.

MejioMejia and students — the vegetable boxes (these were donated by partner Kitchen Community) hold heirloom and organic varieties courtesy of Seed Savers Exhange, including broccoli, lettuce, peas, peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, beets, spinach, eggplants, carrots, and herbs like basil, mint, rosemary, sage and lavender.

JamrokJamrok and students discover grown radishes. There was much excitement.

CompostLeftovers from a meal with the kids provides a lesson in worm composting.

Coming soon: an update on our own gardening adventures at home!

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Tending a Winter Garden

IMG_6055The beginning of the year has been a time of fallowness and flu for us, as well as change. I’ve been having my own personal wrestling match with the Great Flu Epidemic for three weeks now, and canNOT seem to get sleep enough to shake this rattling cough, so please forgive the long silence. (I usually work on the blog at night, when all is quiet, and I’ve been worshiping my pillow instead…)

The weather here has been very cold, at least for the past few days. I’m craving chili and soup, hot cider and cozy blankets. And new projects: I’m in discussions with a good friend and brilliant professor about a book we may write (details to come on that, I hope!), and plotting to launch a green business with another friend. Things are germinating, but they are still only seeds. It’s the middle of winter, after all.

In the larger world beyond my pillow, some things are also apparently afoot. The world has decided to ban new mercury emissions in an important new treaty, which will save future generations a lot of trouble if it actually gets done (and actually addresses the mercury released in mining). President Obama has announced some reasonable new policy proposals to limit access to guns, and my home state of Maryland is moving forward on sensible new gun measures, all of which is as reassuring as first steps can be.

I personally enjoyed the pomp of the inaugural festivities, including the patriotic thrill of the speeches. Unfortunately, the music was kind of awful, though, wasn’t it? Why so pop and warble-y? Even the lovely James Taylor seemed flat. Kelly Clarkson, really? And all the hype over Beyonce? Puh-lease. As we all know now, she Milli-Vanillied it. But that wasn’t the only false note: there were far too many fluttery fake eyelashes and streaky blonde highlights overall, IMHO.

The Prez sadly missed a moment to highlight more stirring acts — like the local and fabulous Sweet Honey in the Rock (perhaps singing “We Are the Ones”) or real blues and jazz folks (B.B. King? Or someone — anyone — with a little soul in their warble?). At least the First Lady rocked out her gown and new hairstyle. Rowr.

Anyhow, my real point is: I’m baaack. With lots of plans for this blog and the new year. While you await the coming guest posts from exciting contributors and my promised download on pjs, here are a few easy ideas for creating your own winter garden of possibilities. Dunno about you, but on these bleak winter days I’m desperate for some green and growing things, indoors where we can see them take root.

Like the mushroom farm, these are manageable and worthy projects for toddlers and bigger kids as well. I saw both the terrarium and the tulips in small glass jars for sale for more than $20 in Whole Foods yesterday — but making your own costs only a few bucks, using materials you can find outside plus a few simple craft-store vases.

Easy Idea 1: The Cutting and the Terrarium

IMG_6088Raid a friend’s (or your own) plants for cuttings and set a few up in a wine glass where you can see the roots start to form and grow. Maya likes tracking the shoots downward and seems amazed by the changes.

Once it’s got a little root action going, feel free to use it to make your own terrarium with moss, a few stones, and a small glass container (with a lid if you have one).

Our cutting was too large for our container, so we used a left-over bit from another succulent instead, as well as some moss from a hike in the woods today, and a few smaller stones. We misted it with the small spray bottle leftover from our mushroom farm, and will cover it with a dish some of the time to keep it moist. Its zen feel is cheering me up already.

IMG_6126Easy Idea 2: The See-Thru Garden

IMG_6079For this, you’ll need:

  • A milk carton
  • Paint and other materials for decorations as you like
  • (Decently sharp) scissors
  • Masking tape (I used painting tape as what I had on hand)
  • Plastic wrap (non-PVC is best if growing herbs)
  • (organic) Seeds that will germinate in such small space and in the light conditions you have indoors (we used organic English Thyme, which need full sun, in our bay window)
  • (Organic, i.e., no chemical) soil, plus a few rocks or corks for the bottom

IMG_6081Using a cleaned milk carton, cut off the top and cut 2 rectangular “windows” in opposing sides. Paint or decorate as you like. Maya painted ours white with tempera paint and then I made flowers by cutting shapes out of a pretty blue watercolor painting she made. She helped glue them on.

IMG_6098Using masking tape, tape some plastic wrap into the windows by setting the tape on one side and taping, then rolling the other side to fit and taping that. Fill the bottom with a few  rocks or corks, and then soil up to the level for planting seeds. Let the toddler shake the seeds, count and plant them as the instructions say, making sure some are close to the “windows.” Top with soil and water per the seed packet instructions. Watch the plants grow!

IMG_6116Easy idea #3:  Bulbs and Rocks

IMG_6060 You will need:

  • Tulip or other bulbs, such as paperwhites (but beware the intense pollen from paperwhites if you are an allergic type!)
  • Rocks — roundish, in a mix of colors and tones
  • Glass vase (clear and round is best)

We like the children’s book, Paperwhite, which tells a lovely and simple story about planting a winter garden with rocks and bulbs, thus inspiring this idea. And collecting rocks to borrow is so much fun!

IMG_6111Soak the bulbs for an hour or so in warm water. After sorting through your rocks, place them carefully in the glass vase. Plant the bulbs (we used amaryllis in the middle and three tulips around the edges) and let the toddler or child water as needed.

IMG_6113Track the roots and shoots as they develop (you could even mark the glass with pastels). Some larger bulbs may need replanting in soil, as you like.

The projects look nice together as well:

IMG_6123

Easy Idea #4: Plant Your Spice Rack

When my Indian mother-in-law visited us several years ago, I came home and found she had planted some fenugreek seeds right out of the spice jar. They grew quickly with a minimum of fuss. And the sprouts were a delicious and healthy garnish on curries and rice.

Since then, I’ve tried cumin seeds, mustard seeds, and anything else handy, with good results. (Obviously, you need to use the spices that are “seeds,” and not dried leaves or another part of the plant.) So just a few days ago, I polished off a planter from outside and now have a batch of fenugreek, or methi, popping up in my kitchen window. Thanks, Nanama!

IMG_6162Other super-easy ideas:

IMG_6104While at the hardware store, I also came across a package with a small glass vase and hyacinth bulb, which I snapped up as well. I got it started, but as they need several weeks under a paper bag in a cool, dark place like our basement, it won’t be the ideal touch of green I hoped for upstairs. Still, we’ll keep an eye on it as the roots grow into the vase.

IMG_6092

IMG_6093I also love, love this small collection of air plants, which are so easy to maintain and look cool in these hanging planters above the kitchen window. (You can order them on Etsy from a number of green-thumbed individuals — including nice planters, such as these — if they would be hard for you to find locally.)

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How are you bringing an early spring indoors?