At the beginning of the school year, I wondered how I would possibly accomplish all of my regular job duties while also adding garden and kitchen teaching to my plate, not to mention maintaining the current culinary garden site. My answer came in the form of an after school club.
I call them the Dirt Girls. The group varies in size (four to twelve girls at a time) and in age (kinder through fourth grade), but they have one thing in common. They all want more time in the garden. For one hour on Monday afternoons, they get just that. And I get eight to twenty-four extra hands to pull weeds, plant seeds, and do any number of small deeds.
The Dirt Girls are not just my minions. They reap multiple benefits of this intimate club. They learn. They play. They make cross-grade friendships. They usually get to take home produce. But most importantly, they become little garden experts through an apprenticeship approach.
Last week, for instance, we had a weed contest. It’s a lot more fun to offer a prize for the longest taproot than to succumb to the chore of pulling weeds. To compete, the girls had to form teams, select their target weed, and use the right tools to extract as much of the taproot as possible. They enthusiastically cheered on their plants and celebrated the winning root, which came in at 10 inches long!
In the end, they learned more than how to identify the difference between mallow and dandelions. They noticed a pattern that most of the smallest mallow plants had a 8 in. taproot, while the dandelions only had a 4-6 in. taproot. This was an interesting observation because at this stage of growth, these weeds happened to have an inverse relationship between leaf height and root depth; the mallow leaves were smaller and wider, while the dandelions were much narrower and longer.
Simple games like this are not just tricks for engaging the girls in the desired task. They would probably pull the weeds even without a contest. Instead, I get to engage them in a different way than I do when I have a class of 25 children in the garden. I can easily demonstrate how to use tools and there is plenty of space for all of them to work safely. Contrary to the adage, “many hands make light work,” the more students you have in a garden, the harder it can be to set up enough authentic tasks for them to do.
Authenticity is key. The Dirt Girls like doing the real work of the garden and they often get to choose the things they like best. They like reviewing the list of jobs before we begin and checking them off as we finish them. They take great pride in upholding the norms of the garden and sharing their snippets of lemon balm, cilantro, or tiny carrots with their families.
I have tried several other strategies for finding committed time to maintain the school garden, but the Dirt Girls are by far the most successful so far. Get in touch if you want to come work with the Dirt Girls some Monday. They will be happy to show you the ropes.