“Are you looking for a garden?” A Marco Polo style cry echoed across the school field. “Are you looking for a writer with four kids?” I hollered back in kind.
The woman walking toward me was Lisa Taylor. I recognized her signature wheat-colored Panama hat and Lennon-esque glasses from the back cover of her new book: Your Farm in the City: An Urban Dweller’s Guide to Raising Food and Raising Animals, a joint venture with Seattle Tilth.
Lisa is the Education Program Manager for Seattle Tilth and a kind of blooming rock star of sorts in the Pacific Northwest landscape of urban farming.
We were here to tour The Rainier Beach Learning Garden and harvest something yummy to cook up as a part of the new program called “Community Kitchens Northwest” whose purpose is to build community by cooking and eating healthy food together. Both programs were created through a partnership between Seattle Tilth and South Shore Pre-K-8 school.
“How did this garden come into being?” I asked looking around at the wonderful garden space that was integrated into the schools curriculum to teach kids how to plant seeds, compost, and ultimately harvest the bounty into healthy recipes.
“Nearly 50 volunteers gathered for five days in August 2009, to build paths and raised beds.” Maren Neldam, Learning Garden Coordinator explained joining us with rakes.
“You guys ready to work in the Learning Garden?” Lisa asked.
“Yes!” The kids cried as they grabbed some rakes oblivious to the typical rain.
“We call these “Yellow Gold,” Maren said snaring 18k colored leaves into her rake.
We piled the “gold” into wheelbarrows and took turns dumping the leaves into wooden square composting bins.
“Composting the leaves is nature’s way of returning nutrients to the soil to help the next generation of plants grow.” Lisa explained as she helped Patrick dump his pile.
“Now, I will invite you to pluck a petal, gently. And rub the leaf between your fingers like this.” Maren said macerating the leaf between her fingertips.
“Peppermint!” Amelia cried.
“What about this one? Do you recognize the taste?” Maren asked as we each picked a leaf off a different plant.
“Licorice!” Sophie answered.
“Now, blend these two together.” Maren said and we watched her daintily wrap a stevia leaf around an anise seed.
“It tastes spicy and sweet.” Sophie said.
“Yeah, like a piece of gum!” Amelia added.
“Patrick, you’re going to love this Dinosaur Kale.” Lisa said to my four-year-old, walking toward another raised bed. I wasn’t so sure about my kids loving anything to do with kale.
“I love Dinosaurs!” Patrick said, eagerly following Lisa to a small forest of T-Rex sized Kale.
We watched Lisa demonstrate how to harvest the hearty green kale and each took turns adding the greens to a pile.
Afterward, we moved inside the school.
“Hold the door?” Maren asked trundling behind us with a pint-sized wheel barrow filled with a plastic tarp in the shape of the satin lavender sachet my sister used to keep in her top dresser drawer.
The kids helped place five or six tweedy burlap sacks on the floor. Upon which Maren carefully placed the tarp-sachet in the center of the burlap rug.
We all observed Maren remove the twine carefully, as if the queen’s jewels were inside, slowly peeling the tarps edges back to reveal….a pile of dirt.
I thought the kids would be disappointed as we all silently stared at the mound.
“You guys want to get your hands dirty?” Maren asked.
“Yes!” The kids cried.
Maren enthusiastically showed the kids what a pregnant worm look like as she searched through her “treasure” pile for insects, casings and other creepy crawlies.
“Tilth” is defined as “the structure and quality of cultivated soil.” In an older meaning the word “tilth” was used to describe the cultivation of wisdom and the spirit. A soil — or a person — in good tilth was said to be “in good heart.”
I teach my kids to respect nature but I’ve never taught them to respect dirt.
Watching Maren handle the dirt with such care and respect I understood more than ever the importance of the Learning Garden and its Earth stewards, Maren and Lisa, as the definition of “good tilth.”
According to Lisa’s book, Your Farm in the City: An Urban Dweller’s Guide to Raising Food and Raising Animals, dirt is something you wash off your hands. Soil is alive. It is filled with living things and supports other living things, such as plants, animals, and people.
We washed our hands and made our way upstairs to a small kitchen where Lisa showed us how to strip the kale from the stock.
“Everything not used will return to the compost bin.” Lisa explained making a pile with the fibrous stocks.
The kids cut the dinosaur kale into small pieces and placed it into a large bowl.
“You guys ready to massage the kale?” Lisa asked.
The kids “massaged” the dinosaur kale with their hands in a large bowl after it was sprinkled with sea salt and lemon juice.
Holding Ty in my lap I felt myself getting jittery.
Food is so intertwined with memories. Good and bad.
When Sophie pushed a forest-green-nutrient-rich Dinosaur Kale salad my way I felt like I was facing down an old adversary — one of many vegetables I stared down at alone at the kitchen table for what felt like hours.
Certainly, my mother wasn’t trying to make me hate kale. In fact the opposite was true. Unfortunately, being forced into eating anything “good for me” resulted in viewing whatever vegetables, I couldn’t surreptitiously shove into my pocket undetected, as something to be endured only long enough to win the reward of a treat.
The kids dug into their salads, inspiring me to do the same with our new friends. Thankfully, I didn’t gag.
In fact, I’m happy to report that we all enjoyed the salad and the community behind the whole process.
Teaching kids (and parents) to eat healthy is an evolutionary process: one bite at a time.