Growing The Gardeners of Tomorrow

Enchantment, Not Weeds

I’ve recently been privileged to spend garden time with many groups of children. Some gathered at our local library for our annual Fairy House program, in which kids create all manner of fanciful constructions using natural materials, from flowers and petals and leaved and buds to shells and feathers, moss and bark. The other groups were delightedly planting edibles and ornamentals they grew from seed. In both cases, many of their parents commented curiously on their child’s level of interest, usually saying that these kids were not particularly interested in gardening at home. What made them so engaged?

I think several factors played a part: for one thing, no weeding was involved (!). Also, the Fairy House program excludes parents except as passive onlookers and actively discourages adult interference. There is supervision and oversight, of course, but the childrens’ own creativity is allowed full rein and they are also allowed the luxury of constructive failure. They are offered a wide range of materials to experiment with and given encouragement as needed, but they get to experience a little frustration as well as the soaring triumph of success when their own ideas become workable.

Hands On Ownership

In the other case, we were planting at Owen’s Playground, an accessible play space that’s rich with marvelous climbing boulders as well as swings and slides and so forth. Most of the kids took occasional breaks to play between plantings, but nearly all of them returned quickly to their work, which they took quite seriously. After all, all humans seek some kind of meaningful activity, and home chores don’t always stack up favorably against a community project that combines good works and good fun.

In both settings, the hands-on aspect was a significant factor. Whether from a home school group or a regular school program, the children had raised their plants from seed. They had watered and tended them for several months as we all waited for planting time to arrive. Once it did, each group came in turn to plant their own offerings as well as a plentiful supply of other colorful things, from Pink Flamingo chard and alpine strawberries to purple perilla and gorgeous amaranths.

Nurturing And Gentle Guidance

Nurturing their own seedlings seemed to give the kids a deeper respect and even fondness for other plants as well. Having cared for the seedlings, they fully realized that plants can live or die and that each of us can influence their fate.  That sense of responsibility led them to (largely) treat plants more like kittens or puppies than like inanimate objects. The communal aspect certainly played a part as well, since in each setting kids teamed up and worked together very happily, finding support and affirmation in a shared creative process. Just as the Fairy House participants were free to try out new ideas, the playground planters were told what each plant would look like when full grown and encouraged to place them where they could look wonderful.

When it comes to instructing kids, I am a huge fan of gentle guidance rather than over-controlling. I feel fortunate (usually) to have grown up in the 50s, when parenting was horrifyingly hands-off by today’s standards. The kids in our middle class neighborhood were encouraged to play outside all day, as long as we showed up for meals and went to bed on time. My brothers and I experienced this as mostly benign neglect, taking full advantage of our freedom to ride bikes to the library daily, play in the nearby woods, climb trees, build forts, and mess about with boats on the local river. Back then, nobody seemed worried about possible dangers and I don’t recall anything awful happening to any of us until the 60s crashed over us, bringing Viet Nam, an ocean of drugs, and some rather less savory freedoms in their wake.

Kid Gardening Is Different

For the past century or so, gardening has ranked high among America’s favorite hobbies. Most folks grew at least a few tomatoes and flowers, and many raised much of their own food. Sadly, things are changing fast. A fascinating government report issued in 2013 shows that on average, we now enjoy about 5 hours a day of free time, most of which is spent watching tv, playing computer games, and socializing on line or in real life. We spend 20 minutes reading, 19 minutes exercising, and 17 minutes relaxing and thinking. Gardening isn’t even on the list.

Gardening conferences these days are attended by a greying, largely female audience. If horticulture is losing ground, growing food is gaining somewhat, largely thanks to renewed interest in food quality and safety. However, gardening is no longer a common family activity (especially when weeding is required). What’s more, children spend far more time indoors than past generations did. When they are outside, it’s apt to be as part of a team, involved in a sport or game. That’s fine, yet team sports don’t teach us how to enjoy nature. Unstructured outdoor play is sadly rare, and many children are not even sure how to interact with the natural world.

Hands On, Hands Off

Thus, I am enchanted to  gently guide children in hands-on outdoor activities, whether it involves creating imaginative habitats to delight themselves or planting public places for hundreds of people to enjoy. It’s heartening to watch children find such joy in playing with garden gleanings that would otherwise end up in our compost, or in devising a magical forest of annuals for a playground. Even without (or especially without) adult suggestions, the range and scope of their imaginative makings is impressive and often unexpected.

If this sounds like fun to you as well, please pick up the torch. To get started, find a spot or two where such activities can be enjoyed by your children, grandchildren, or neighborhood children. Create appropriate safety guidelines, then stand back as the youngsters make a fairy house or plant a P-Patch or decorate a public space for everyone to enjoy. If we’re lucky, they’ll become tomorrow’s gardeners, alive to the living world. It’s hugely important, because when we encourage children to play creatively in the garden, we offer a bridge to the natural world that can last a lifetime.

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Delightful Beans, Fresh Or Dried

A Bevy Of Bountiful Beans

Beans may not be a glamour crop in America, but they deserve more esteem than they get. Perhaps their very virtues make them seem dull: Dried beans are the basis of many world cuisines, packed with protein and yielding more nutrient value per running bed foot than anything else you can grow. However, these workhorse classics have an enormous clan of cousins that richly reward an approach with with finesse. In France, slim, succulent filet beans are prized by gourmets and gourmands alike. In Italy, tiny fresh beans are treated with reverence, while buttery shell beans are celebrated in legendary spreads. In Greece, mature green beans are roasted with olive oil and garlic or sauteed with leeks and fresh lemon juice. In Asian, tiny mung beans are tucked into sophisticated .desserts

When we invite the beans of the world into the garden and kitchen, we too can revel in their versatility. For sheer pleasure, start with French selections. If you’ve been content to enjoy Blue Lakes and Kentucky Wonders (both excellent in their way), filet beans may come to your plate as a revelation. Picked daily, these skinny young beans have a rich, full flavor that lends itself to many treatments, from a simple toss with butter and lemon to complex curries, salads, and sides. These fabulous French beans are the rock stars of a huge family, with a multitude of colorful, flavorful cousins from all over the world.

Heritage Heros

To further expand your culinary horizons, grow a mixture of fillet and shell beans as well as dried varieties that store well. These days,  both seed catalogs and farmers markets offer flavorful heritage beans such as rose-and-white speckled Cranberry Bean and Christmas Limas, dark red Sangre De Toro and Rio Zape, or mottled brown Wren’s Egg and Eye Of The Tiger. Yellow Eye Beans cook up creamy and smooth, traditionally slow-cooked with ham hocks. Scarlet Runner Beans have edible, fragrant flowers and are delicious fresh or dried. Black Turtle is a very old black bean variety still widely grown today for its sumptuous flavor and fine texture. Italian cooks cherish White Runner or Cannellini beans, with the rich, buttery flavor that makes them favorites for rustic bean spreads.

Once the fascination hooks you, you’ll find hundreds of bean varieties to try. Many are equally flavorful fresh or dried: Young French filet beans are a delicacy, but if you don’t pick them fast enough, they’ll ripen into pale green flageolet or shell beans. If you miss that boat, let them dry completely to becomes haricots, classics of cold season cookery. Plump Italian fava beans can also be eaten fresh, perhaps made into creamy hummus, spicy pesto, or herbed spreads for crusty baguettes. Heritage black beans from Central America give chiles and bean stews rich depth and savor, while Asian mung and adzuki beans offer new flavors to explore.

Making Beans Feel At Home

These tropical staples thrive in warm conditions and may rot when sown in chilly soil. To avoid cold damage, sow beans after Memorial Day (or two weeks past your region’s last frost date). If frost threatens tender young beans, protect them with floating row cover. If beans get badly frost nipped, they won’t fully recover, so replace them with sturdy new plants (it’s not too late). Since beans develop hefty root systems, open tight soil thoroughly with a garden fork before sowing and amend generously with mature compost. Where soils are heavy, beans do best in mounded beds of sandy loam, again well amended with compost.

All beans need full sun and protection from strong winds, and climbing pole beans need at least six feet of sturdy trellising or poles strung with netting for support. They also do well on wooden or even chain link fences, which offer very strong support for heavy laden plants. Beans are also heavy feeders, so dig in some transplant fertilizer with newly transplanted beans. Side dress young beans with seaweed meal and feed every few weeks with a complete organic fertilizer. Always water roots well before fertilizing. Beans produce best when given moderate fertilizers, such as 5-5-5, since high-nitrogen feeds encourage foliage instead of beans. They require even moisture to crop generously, so mulch well with compost to maintain consistent soil moisture. To avoid diseases, keep foliage dry when watering and avoid contact with bean plants after rain.

To Blanch Or Not

Since forever, standard wisdom has insisted that vegetables must be steamed or boiled for a few minutes, then plunged into ice water and cooled before freezing. This step inhibits enzyme activity that impairs the quality of frozen food but it definitely affects the texture. If fresh green beans are harvested a day or more before freezing, it’s best to blanch first. However, in my own experience, when freshly picked green beans are processed right after picking, they retain excellent flavor and texture even without the usual blanching step.

For best results, the beans must be thoroughly dry, since ice crystals impair food texture. Organically grown beans can be carefully hosed off in the garden while still on the vine, then sun dried before picking. To keep track of your harvest area, use colored yarn or tape to mark off the section you plan to pick that day. Tip and tail your beans and cut them to your preferred size, pack them into freezer bags and date each bag. Blanched or not, all frozen produce retains quality best when vacuum sealed. If you don’t have a vacuum sealing system, you can make your own with freezer bags and a drinking straw. Fill and close bags, then reopen slightly and insert a straw. Suck out as much air as possible and reseal tightly.

Filet Bean Bliss

This speedy version of the classic French sauce is delicious over filet beans or pretty much any and all vegetables.

Blanched Beans With Quick Aioli

1 pound filet or any green beans, stem end trimmed
1/2 cup mayonnaise (vegan mayo works fine)
1 cloves garlic, pressed
1/2 organic lemon, juiced, rind grated
1/8 teaspoon sea salt
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground white or black pepper

Blanch beans in salted, boiling water for 3 minutes, plunge into cold water for 3 minutes, drain and set aside. Whisk mayonnaise with garlic and lemon rind and season to taste with lemon juice, salt, and pepper. Drizzle warm beans with aioli and serve. Serves 4.

French Filet Bean Salad

1 pound filet beans, ends trimmed
1 lemon, cut in 6 wedges
pinch of sea salt
1 tablespoon avocado or olive oil
2 green onions, thinly sliced
1/4 cup halved cherry tomatoes
few grinds black pepper
1/4 cup stemmed flat leaf parsley

Steam beans for 3 minutes, plunge into cold water for 3 minutes, drain. In a serving bowl, combine salt and the juice of 2 lemon wedges and stir until salt dissolves. Add oil and pepper and whisk to emulsify. Toss beans, green onions, tomatoes, and parsley with dressing and serve, garnished with remaining lemon wedges. Serves 4.

Filet Beans With Walnuts

1 tablespoon avocado or olive oil
1 clove garlic, chopped
2 tablespoons chopped walnuts
1/8 teaspoon sea salt
1/8 teaspoon smoked hot paprika (or any)
1 pound filet beans, ends trimmed
1 teaspoon stemmed thyme
few grinds black pepper

In a small pan, combine oil, garlic, walnuts, salt, and paprika over medium high heat and cook to the fragrance point (1-2 minutes). Add beans, thyme, and pepper, stirring to coat. Cover pan and cook until barely tender (2-3 minutes) and serve at once. Serves 4.

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All Ages In The Garden

Inviting Joyful Participation

This weekend, planting started at Owen’s Playground here on Bainbridge Island and it was soul stirring to see people of all ages absorbed and engaged in bringing a flush of fresh green to the scene. OP is an accessible play place that quite literally offers something for everyone. Smooth, wide paths accommodate granny walkers and baby strollers as well as racing kids and meandering elders. Safe swings and a merry-go-round cradle those who need help to stay balanced. A boulder fountain can be triggered at wheelchair or standing height. The underlying principles of universal or inclusive design guide the kind and placement of play structures and seating, places to do and places to be. No matter what your age or stage or state of being, there are hands-on activities, things to listen to, look at, touch and sniff.

These days, inclusive design is getting attention in all kinds of places, from parks to offices and homes. Millions of aging boomers seek safe, attractive and serviceable places to live and work and play, and so do millions of people with various disabilities. The good news is that accessibility is increasingly driving designs for both public and private spaces. The not as good news is that universal design can require a lot of hardscape in order to accommodate multiple needs.

Bringing In The Green

Happily, thoughtful plantings can balance hard surfaces beautifully, as long as the life-long needs of the plants are taken into consideration. In urban settings, that can be challenging, but in a semi-rural one like our island, there’s still room to leave or create significant greenbelts and interlaced plantings. Sadly, even here we are seeing a proliferation of housing developments that strip away all existing life to facilitate speedy construction and uniform designs. The lost ecosystem is eventually “replaced” by young trees and shrubs, often inappropriately chosen and poorly placed, thus doomed from the start.

Besides a majestic array of shaped climbing rocks and beautiful boulders, Owen’s Playground necessarily includes a lot of hard surfacing, since loose gravel and wood chips can make walking or rolling very difficult. Fortunately, there’s room for plenty of greenery, tucked into drainage swales and rain gardens and decorating the spiraling slopes of a gentle mound that also holds a climbing net and a small rock scramble. We’re also including a sensory garden, full of plants that offer color, textures, and intriguing shapes, as well as sweet and spicy and nose-twisting fragrances. A plant petting zoo will house a strokable collection of Dr. Seuss-ish plants with eccentric form, foliage, and flowers.

Planting With All Ages

Over the past few days, families and school groups have come to help plant. Many brought plants they grew from seeds donated by Ed Hume’s seed company, including nasturtiums, sunflowers, marigolds, zinnias, and wildflowers as well as Pink Flamingo chard and rainbow carrots. We also planted many Log House Plants specialties, so our bean teepee will soon be decked with living drapery, a merry melange of Mexican Sour Gherkins and Black Eyed Susan vine (Thunbergia) and beds will burgeon with fragrant herbs and enticing edibles.

By asking family and school groups to grow plants and come plant them, I hoped to engage all participants into a new community of friends with a natural connection to this promising place. Hands-on activities always create more ownership, so when kids asked where to plant things, rather than directing plant placement, I told them a bit about the plant and asked where they thought it would look best. The result is wild and wonderful, with cherry tomatoes intermingled with calendulas and kale laced with strawberries. One astute boy carefully chose to partner frilly purple perilla with tall, vivid orange marigolds because he felt the contrast would be pleasing, which indeed it is. Several friends brought masses of ornamental onions of many kinds which were poked hither and thither with gay insouciance. Now the winding beds look like the tiers of a joyful wedding cake decorated with passion and pleasure.

A Little Gentle Guidance

Because the sloping beds run into paths made of tightly compacted grit, I did make a more pointed suggestion that the edges be bound with hardy herbs, which we had in plenty. Now, the interface of bed and path is a ruffled run of ornamental oreganos, thymes, and marjorams, with occasional insertions of alpine strawberries. The tops of the beds are decked with dangling nasturtiums that will soon hang lacy curtains over the bare soil. Also, we took care to plant the sunflowers where their south-facing blossoms could be appreciated from all over the play space.

Next will come an anchor bed that will be a gateway into the playground. Here we’ll plant a fig tree rescued from my mom’s old garden, as well as a purple smoke bush and some handsome maiden grasses. Larger shrubs will taper down to kid-scale plantings that lead into the sensory garden and the plant petting zoo. Eventually, I hope to see the plantings extend to a little picnic meadow and a tiny woodland with another spiral path that echoes the play space path. This extension of living green will further soften and balance the playground’s hardscape and offer places to relax and watch happy kids at play.

Magical Trees

We’re already planting some lovely trees, which must be chosen with care to lastingly fit the allotted spaces (for example, between a swing and a slide). Tree placement is always something of an art, requiring the ability to dream into the future and imagine what size and shape each tree will develop over time. This holds true for any planting, any place, and trees that are planted without forethought are all too often cut down in their prime. Here, we are blessed with ample room for both large and small trees. A steep slope will soon get some shade from sugar maples, which also offer brilliant fall color, as will a sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum) which is similarly spectacular in autumn. A graceful little Sugar Thyme crabapple will grace the top of the gentle mound bed, eventually offering shade, flowers, and fruit for critters as well as people.

My personal favorite addition is a splendid Camperdown elm, generously donated by the Bainbridge Island Garden Club. This wide-leaved, weeping tree makes a marvelous kid cave, dim and mysterious and dappled with welcome shade. This one will partly spread over a broad path and partly hang over a brook-like swale, an evocative setting that charmingly suggests wider and wilder places. When planning spaces for kids, it’s good to remember that their still-active imaginations can make much of little. Just as books for older children can feel simplistic and ‘under-written’ to adults, the most loved kid spaces suggest rather than insist on interpretation. Even just a hint of the wild can be a bridge to anywhere!

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Garden Tour Courtesy

A Visitor’s Guide

I just spent a delightful weekend as a docent in the glorious garden of a dear friend. Though most of the interactions were very positive and pleasant, a few triggered this (hopefully gentle) reminder. It’s timely, since the season of garden touring bliss is upon us and summer weekends are packed with opportunities to visit gardens of every size and description. There are sustainable garden tours, estate garden tours, tiny garden tours, collectors’ garden tours, native plant garden tours, nursery garden tours, public garden tours, tours of gardens that boast an astonishing array of chicken coops. All this bounty can lead to feverish outbreaks of shopping, both for plants and for the accouterments that can elevate a garden from simple to sublime (or staggering, at any rate). It can also reveal places where some of us could use a little lesson in garden courtesy.

Here’s the place to start: The gardeners, whether loving slaves to the goddess Flora or a paid team, have spent months of long, long days bringing their beloved gardens to a pitch of perfection. On tour days, the owners can usually be seen standing about their garden’s entrance, exhausted and proud, yet in the case of the actual gardener, often surprisingly diffident about their extraordinary accomplishments. Far too often they will, if allowed, make deprecating remarks about their masterwork, like a parent who disses a beloved child for fear of seeming biased about their awesomeness (of course we’re biased!).

Don’t Go There

As a visitor, your task is to vehemently deny any such derogatory comments (even if you privately agree. Perhaps especially if you privately agree). When a gardener laughs a bit nervously and says “Well, it’s kind of a mess, really” you do not ever say, “Wow, it sure is. No design skills at all. How did this dump get on a tour?” No. What you say is, “To me, this garden is very (use a supportive adjective, perhaps ‘lovely’ or ‘joyful’). In fact, it’s a good idea to work up a list of appropriately generous and enthusiastic terms of approval in advance, so they slip naturally from your lips. Samples: playful, happy, serene, delightful, comfortable, inviting, personal, innovative, attractive, intriguing, amazing….

Please remember that you are not invited in as a consultant but as an admirer. Purchasing a ticket does not confer permission to freely voice criticisms, most especially if the gardener or a docent or another visitor is within hearing distance. If you must express yourself, do so in your notebook. What? You don’t carry one? I know several (rather famous and English, thus partially holy) gardeners who refuse to tell people plant names unless they have notebooks and writing tools in hand. These days, a smart phone does the same job, with the added advantage of being part camera. Take pictures (not snipped cuttings!!!) of anything that catches your eye. You can show them to your favorite nursery vendor and buy your own whatever it is. Seriously: no cuttings, and don’t ever ask for one, either (!!!!).

What To Bring

In order not to burden the weary gardener with your needs, please find and use a toilet before getting on the bus or in the car. Also, always equip yourself in advance with the following:

Sun protection
Stock your car or, in the case of bus tours, capacious handbag/manbag, with a sunhat, shades, sunblock, and possibly a light weight long sleeved shirt. Do not ask the garden owner for any of these things, especially if you tend to forget to return them.

Rain gear
Tours run rain or shine and it is not the responsibility of the garden owner to provide you with shelter, umbrellas, or dry clothing.

Drinks
Plan to carry liquids of choice in suitable, preferably reusable containers. DO NOT abandon your cups, bottles etc. in the garden, behind a bush, on a carefully arranged plant table or in any other inventive place. If you brought it in, pack it out.

No Smoking
Second hand smoke can be disturbing and very unpleasant. Worse still, some plants can get disfiguring or fatal diseases if they are accidentally touched by a smoker (this is not a joke). Also, in dry, hot summers, gardens offer no safe, wise place to dispose of matches and cigarettes, etc. so save the cigs for the car.

Say This, Not That

Remember, sincerity can be overrated, especially when it leads to unnecessary unkindness. Not every garden will represent a style you admire or feel comfortable with and that is perfectly reasonable. However, it is far kinder to say nothing than to be disparaging or critical. If you feel it, fine but keep it to yourself. Still, stony silence can be just as cutting as a wicked whisper. Please make an effort and find something simple and pleasant to say.

When a garden is crammed with amazing plants, know that each one is adored and cherished by the gardener. Instead of saying, ‘Wow, someone has a lot of money to burn,” consider “What fantastic abundance”. If what is often called a riot of color leaves you cold, try, “How amazing!” (no need to clarify in what way). If a garden is highly decorated, say “What fun!” instead of “What a bunch of clutter.” Doesn’t that feel better, really? And really, isn’t it pretty fun to see someone else’s pleasure spilling through their art and work?

And Never This

Here are some overheards from past years that were both unforgettable and all but unforgivable:

“That plant is so last year.”
“I only grow the white form.”
“White gardens are so yesterday.”
“Money can buy everything but taste.”
“It just looks so random and crazy.”
“I’d never do this; some people have nothing else going on, but I have a life.”

But Always This!

There are plenty more, but you get the idea. Take home, I hope: Be kind or just smile and thank the owners for generously opening their adored garden in such a good cause (it nearly always is a good cause, right?). Now, there’s something we can ALL say and really mean it!

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