Gardening Waco Part 2: Digging Deeper while Gardening

(For the other parts of this series, click here: Gardening Waco. — ALW)

By Aime Sommerfeld Lillard

I’ve gone back and forth about the best way to talk about the benefits gardening provides.  I’m sure some people would like a well-crafted research study that demonstrates statistically positive results of gardening. Others would prefer a simple story.

I will try to combine the two a bit while relying heavily on my personal experiences. My degree says “Horticulture”, but that doesn’t clearly define my field of study. Other names one may use are sociohorticulture, people-plant interactions, and horticultural therapy (which is really its own branch of therapy).

Through many conversations about gardening I have learned that for most people it seems the garden itself, whether it is a community or school garden, is seen as the end-product. I would prefer the garden be seen as a location for a multitude of interactions. These interactions can be between individuals and plants, or between people. Have you noticed that the weather is a pretty safe topic of conversation? A garden will function similarly if individuals are given some basic exposure to growing or green spaces.

I will start with my experience installing a garden at a Montessori preschool that served kiddos infant to 5 years and a few older ones in an after-school group. I was looking at visual motor integration and delay of gratification with pre and post testing measures from ages 2.5 years up. I was working with a range of children from different socioeconomic levels, ethnicities, and various upbringings.

My first big “Oh my” moment came after we had our family engagement day to build the garden and I had done a couple of inside lessons. We were ready to start working in the garden.  I knew I could only handle 3-5 kids at a time due to their age. The garden was fenced and adjacent to the playground area. My idea was to go down the roster and have the kids come in as class groups. By the time I had things set up in the garden and turned around there was a line of kids waiting by the gate at the fence. And by “line of kids” I mean practically everyone on the playground was crowded around the fence.

Cue the delay of gratification practice. Here I thought it was going to come from seed germination, plant growth, and waiting for harvest. Well, it came a lot quicker than that! Pretty much immediately I had kids crying because they didn’t get to go in the first group, or the second. I admit, standing in the garden watching little kids bawl on the other side of the fence because they wanted to come garden was not what I had prepared for!

With the teachers help we created a system so that those who wanted to garden sat at a designated spot in a line until it was their turn. I kid you not, there were kids who would leave playtime to come sit at the end of the line and wait for 10 minutes to go in the garden and cut three leaves off of a collards plant. Color me impressed.

I briefly want to mention a couple of other experiences during that project. There were two little boys who were high energy and had difficulty focusing in a classroom setting. I was a little worried about having them in the garden, but they were no different than the other kids. One day, we were transplanting, and I set one of the boys to work on that job. He was supposed to plant about 5 plants out of the tray of 35. Forty-five minutes later he finished all the plants. Did I need them all done? No. Did his “turn” in the garden end before that? Sure. However, I just let him work while I cleaned up and his teachers let him stay outside to finish his work. At the end of the day we got to see his pride as he and the teachers brought his mom out to see his work. Was it worth my extra time and flexibility of schedule? No question.

Another time a little girl transferred to the school who didn’t speak (much) English. She wouldn’t go into the room to be tested with me for our pre-test measures, but she waited with everyone else to work with me in the garden. It was easy to see that the garden was comfortable for her, she could point, dig, plant, and harvest just as well as anyone else. Here was a place she could gain confidence, be herself, and not deal with barriers she experienced in the classroom.

One of my favorite memories when I was working in a long-term care facility was cleaning up after a planting project. Ladies came out with their walkers, air pumps, and wheelchairs to watch and participate. When I was putting things away after the project, I turned around and encountered a walker pushed up against the wall outside. Turns out carrying a plant to your room can be more important than taking your walker. This still warms my heart, knowing that for that time, her focus was clearly on something else. A hope for life, for growth, for an experience.

What I ask you to consider after reading this is how the garden offered a setting for these encounters. It was not gardening itself, or the physical labor. Simply by being there, and being available, the garden is a place where growth and experiences can happen. A garden provides the potential for growing pride, growing food, growing communication, and growing community.

Dr. Aime Sommerfeld Lillard has cultivated a love for nature and gardening through multiple outlets. Dr. Lillard is a Texas A&M graduate with a B.S. in Agricultural Leadership and Development and an M.S. and Ph.D. in Horticulture with a focus on human issues in horticulture. Currently, Dr. Lillard contracts with the Urban Gardening Coalition (UGC) for the Waco Health District’s Farmers Market Promotion Program Grant. She works in the Waco area through the vision of UGC to “strengthen local food production, improve access to healthy food, and empower folks to “grow their own” by creating a coalition that can impact a variety of horticultural education and grow through strategic partnerships.

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