In the Garden:
Coastal and Tropical South
When gardening in public areas, it's neater to plant through layers of weed barrier cloth and mulch.
Tending plants can be a solo event, a quiet retreat from a raucous world. But gardening can also be a community experience, and should be.
Humans are interested in the world around them and you can appeal to that curiosity wherever people are gathered together. Schools, group homes and other congregate living facilities such as nursing homes can always find a little space for green plants and at least a few willing hands. Curricula for every age range can tailor activities for small and large groups that teach life skills and foster self-esteem. Apartment complexes, neighborhood green spaces and community centers actively seek volunteers to coordinate community vegetable and flower gardens. The once-maligned prison gardening programs have proven themselves over the course of time to nurture positive growth in the participants. If positive changes can happen inside prison walls, surely gardens should be cultivated everywhere, or as the NGA puts it, "Gardens for All."
Little ones are naturally curious about everything, and they'll grab a seed or bulb as quickly as anything else. As soon as a child can toddle, he can drop a bulb in a hole, and very soon, take the trowel into his own hands. A hand that can make a fist can grab a sunflower seed and press it into the soil. Make it a habit to take playpens, swings, and later blankets into the garden; what kids see, they want to do. For the youngest, to see you garden gives them one more behavior to mimic, and what could be more positive? By the time children are four or five, you can set up a trellis for their cardinal climbers and beans, or plant morning glories, moonflowers and four o'clocks for an ever-popular clock garden. Teach children not to put seeds (or anything else that you don't give them for dinner) into their mouths. After all, garden lessons translate into life at any age.
When you are gardening with any inexperienced group, it is important to start wherever they are. This can mean using pictures from seed packs or catalogs to show what the future holds to keep interest building as the plants grow. You may provide basic hand tools and then let the group decide whether to set up a pool to buy other tools. One downstairs neighbor may have room to store shovels and rakes while another on the second floor may be happy to employ them. These same ideas of give and take can benefit those who cannot physically participate outdoors. One who sprouts seedlings in a kitchen window will see their starts returned as harvest by those who take them out to the common garden. Perhaps the most important principle to remember when encouraging groups to take up our wondrous passion is this: whatever you do, do it "with" the people you want to involve, not "for" them.
As a sad example from my own experience on a committee meant to do good, here is a cautionary tale. A committee of ten offered to help start a garden at a senior citizen center and met often with the director and social worker at the facility over six months. A landscape architect drew up a plan based on those meetings, one local company provided supplies and another brought volunteers. Every weekend for a month they toiled, and at last the ribbon was cut on a lovely parterre garden full of stunning dwarf shrubs, a riot of perennials and planter boxes full of annuals. There were nice fences, benches for looking at the garden, accessible brick pathways laid by professional masons who donated time and supplies and a small fountain gurgling to suppress the city sounds. The committee made a stunning discovery one month later. No one was out in the garden on a spectacular spring day when 40 came for the weekly lunch gathering! It took three more meetings to discern the obvious: no one asked the seniors what they wanted nor recruited their labor. Turned out they didn't like fences, wanted tables and chairs for playing dominoes and eating outside, not benches. The brick paths worked for wheelchairs, but were difficult for the men who used canes, and the fountain sent some of the ladies straight to the bathroom. There was a sense that the committee considered the seniors "too old" to do any work, that instead of creating a garden oasis we needlessly complicated the landscape. Finally, the seniors wanted to grow vegetables, herbs and flowers to cut for the lunch tables in the sunny space, since most of them lived in an older, very shady neighborhood. It took another month to undo and redo, but success came a few months later. The seniors invited everyone involved to a cookout in the new garden featuring food they grew. We learned the classic lesson about good intentions and the power of doing "with" the people that are the point of the doing.
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