Exploring Community Gardens with My Daughter

Recent research in the U.K. on children’s connectedness to nature (or lack thereof) yielded what may come as a surprising result: kids in urban areas (London) were more in touch with nature than those living in rural parts of England. The criteria for determining connection include:

• Empathy for creatures
• Having a sense of oneness with nature
• Having a sense of responsibility for the environment
• Enjoyment of nature

This study from The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds made me think about something that I’ve been doing for the last couple years in Seattle (often with my six-year-old daughter in tow): community and guerrilla garden “spectating.”

Though we didn’t actually sign up to join a community garden, we explored many of them throughout the city – including the “unofficial” ones that consist of a well-meaning citizen planting vegetables or flowers on unused public land, like along sidewalks.

The community gardens, generally open to the public during specified times, were a feast for the eyes, nose and imagination. One was located next to a playground and en route on our walk from school to home. Throughout the spring and summer, I’d pick my daughter up from preschool and up we’d walk to the garden.

In the height of a Seattle summer, we could expect to see a proliferation of colorful dahlias, unbelievably perfect roses, big, fragrant bushes of rosemary, towering, near bush-like masses of mustard greens, collard greens and chard (red, yellow, green).

Cucumbers (one of my daughter’s favorites) were impossibly large, squash blossoms bloomed and gave away the secret of the yellow summer squashes growing voluminously beneath them. Little dirt paths wound from garden to garden, homemade scarecrows and other crafty ornamentations gave insight into the personality of the gardener behind each particular patch.

Often the gardeners were there working. Initially, I’d entered with trepidation, not sure what the “rules” were concerning hanging out in a community garden that you didn’t belong to. I quickly realized there were no rules – besides being respectful to the land and the fruits of their labor.

That meant teaching my daughter early-on that we wouldn’t be picking those gorgeous coral roses to take home; they were here for everyone to admire (and smell) and for the gardener to pick if she chose to do so. A little pinch here and there of a herb at the height of its glory was ok though – we’d both inhale deeply from a tiny bit of sage, rubbing its lambs-wool-soft petals against our cheeks, or from a blooming lavender bush (the one thing I’d allow my daughter to “sneak” a sprig of to bring home since it grows in such abundance).

The gardeners would often acknowledge us with a smile or a nod of the head. It occurred to me that perhaps they welcomed our quiet “intrusion.” After all, besides themselves and their fellow gardeners, they probably don’t get much of a chance to show off the stunning display made possible by their hard work. It’s not like you can invite all their friends over for an alfresco dinner party in a community garden as you would in your own backyard.

As spectators, we were among the lucky few who got to see the entirety of their creative vision: what they chose to grow, what colors they positioned next to each other, how their vegetables intermingled with their flowers.

One particularly enterprising resident managed to coax bright red tomatoes, squash, dahlias, rhubarb and many types of lettuces in a skinny peninsula of grass between the sidewalk and the road in front of her home. Since it was so close to us, we could watch this particular garden in detail; noting when things were ripening, flourishing and, finally, finishing their show for the season. We also got to watch nature itself hard at work: bees busy pollinating, earthworms slinking though the dirt, birds flying in to find an evening snack.

Having a garden of your own is, of course, wonderful. But there’s something singularly special about exploring the varied gardens of your urban brethren, of getting out into a world that’s bigger than your backyard, of finding a kind of communion via nature with people who are otherwise strangers, and of teaching respect for living things: the idea that you can enjoy something without necessarily “owning” it.

Based on the four factors that define connectedness with nature, I’d say my daughter experienced every one of them – further proof perhaps that urbanites have every bit a chance as rural dwellers to discover and delight in the great outdoors.



Photo Credit: Kali9/iStock

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