Friday, December 28, 2007

Garden Greetings from Japan

Urban Sprouts volunteer Zia Hrdy recently sent me this update on her adventures in Japan, where she lives and teaches. School gardens come naturally there! We miss Zia and look forward to her homecoming! She was an extremely dedicated garden volunteer at Ida B. Wells High School during 2005-06. Top photo is Zia with her first graders; below kids make garden-grown lunch; at bottom, persimmons drying.

The past year and a half in Japan has been wonderful. I've been living in a little farming village in the mountains of Nagano prefecture. I teach English at 1 junior high and 2 elementary schools and gardening is very much a part of school life here. Each grade level has its own little plot on school grounds, and the garden touches so many aspects of the curriculum here. The hallways are lined with chrysanthemum bushes grown by the first graders, sunflower seeds find their way into math classes, and popcorn has been popping into all the teachers' offices after being grown, harvested, and cooked by the fourth graders. Seasonal flowers are brought in by teachers from their own home gardens. There is always at least one vase full of flowers in the entry ways at school. Such a nice touch!

There seem to be no hangups about bringing food from the gardens straight into the mouths at school. The students put on their goofy gumboots, tromp out to the dirt and stick their hands right in! The harvest is divided among classmates or taken straight to the cafeteria kitchen. Last week, Japanese pumpkins were in school lunch every day after a harvest at one of the schools. This meant many variations on pumpkin soup, fried pumpkin tempura, and steamed pumpkin. One day, we spent a morning at elementary roasting sweet potatoes in a fire of dead leaves, and then by tea time we were devouring the soft sweet gooiness! The kids aren't even phased by cooking with weeds. Last spring, the 8th graders pounded rice with wild mugwort they had weeded from their plots and made fresh mochi. We also pulled purslane from the beds that day. The students were a bit surprised when I took it home to plant in my garden. They didn't know what great omelets it makes!

In addition to straying into the gardens during my free periods, I've been wandering into the hills and farm stands to find wild vegetables with new friends and teachers. So many strange delights! This year I've met all sorts of strange shoots and leaves – bamboo shoots dug from underground, translucent horsetails picked after the first rain, a dusty purple pod-bearing vine called akebi that makes interesting tempura, and more mushrooms than I have ever seen at the Ferry Building!

Winter cold is winding down the foraging and farming season though, and now everyone is working to preserve their produce. Chinese cabbages are split to reveal their curly centers and laid on planks to wilt before becoming kimuchi. The daikons are braided and hung for a few weeks before being turned to crunchy pickles. Long strings of persimmons hang and dry in enormous open barns – the buildings seem to actually glow orange just before dusk, they are so full of bright fruit. They'll soon be sticky sugary masses, akin to dried dates and good for naturally sweetening cakes!

—Zia Hrdy
Nagano, Japan, 2007

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Updates from MLK Middle School!

photos: preparing a "winter fruit-root salad" and a bed of kale and chard!

As the days get shorter and cooler, we have been busily tending our winter crops at the MLK Middle School garden. We have kale, chard, bok choi, broccoli, romanesco, fava beans, beets, and carrots growing, which will make for a yummy feast once we get back from the holiday break! Last week we made some delicious “winter fruit-root” salads with lettuce, apple, pears, carrots, dried cranberries, and a lemon salad dressing made with lemons from our own tree. The students gobbled it all up, and some students asked for the recipe so they can make it at home!

In other news, we kicked off our new after-school “Garden and Ecology Club” by creating “worm hotels” and getting to know these wiggly friends up close and personal. Creating a small worm bin is a great way to continue to help your garden throughout the wintry months – just mix up your vegetable kitchen scraps with some red wiggler worms and newspaper, and come springtime you’ll have wonderfully rich worm compost to feed your plants!

I savor experiences like these – they are what make my work so much fun! In the few months since I started working with Urban Sprouts, I have been amazed time and time again to see youth transform when they are in a safe and nurturing garden environment. I have seen kids overcome their fears of dirt to learn how to make compost and maintain a worm bin. I have seen students with severe behavioral problems inside the classroom go out to the garden and eagerly cooperate with classmates and teachers. I have had students come up to me after trying new fruits and vegetables to tell me, “I almost never eat vegetables at home… can I have seconds?” I am already looking forward to the springtime of gardening and eating ahead!

Youth Garden Designers!

At the campus shared by Excelsior (middle school) and June Jordan (high school), behind the school garden lies a huge open field area currently used for nothing . . . but we are making plans!

This semester the Food class at June Jordan took the first crack at designing the new garden space. Students
listed elements we want in the new space, measured the space, and drew plans for their dream garden.

Inspired by the baby chicks and piglets we visited at Hidden Villa, the students incorporated a chicken coop and run into many of their designs. Lisa provided the garden design curriculum she's been working on, and teacher Mr. Olsson added a peer critique. Students used stickies to give feedback on each other's work.

Here are examples of students' designs (click on each one to see it close up for all the detail!):

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Ida B Wells' 5-Leaf Stir-Fry

Ida B Wells High school students recently harvested 5 varieties of greens and 4 varieties of lettuce and prepared a meal showcasing the diversity of cool season crops! One student took these beautiful photos of her peers engaged in cooperative work:

Saturday, December 08, 2007

A Note on Generosity

Heading into the holiday season has me thinking about generosity. The holidays of the winter season invite us to take a moment to be deeply grateful for all the unique and inspiring opportunities, strokes of luck and amazing people we have had the fortune to encounter. Being in the spirit, I would like to take this moment to convey how moved I am by the work of our volunteers. Urban Sprouts has had the most generous volunteers helping us build our gardens, work with youth in classes and assist us with our ongoing research projects.

It is an amazing sight to see parents and other community members hauling mulch, digging beds and generally working with great patience to ensure that youth can grow vegetables in their very own school gardens. It seems to me there is no way to thank our volunteers enough. I am often humbled to wordlessness by their acts of giving. Yet, I try.

I would like to give a very special thanks to Molly, Sky, Jessica, Casey, Caitlin, the parents and neighbors of Aptos Middle School, the Sutter Health folks and our friends at Skywire Software for all their hard work! I thank you all for making this holiday season warmer and richer with your generosity.

Happy Holidays,

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Why do we have so much STUFF?

The Story of Stuff:
Ever wonder why you get the URGE to SHOP even though you KNOW that wanting more stuff is what makes us trash our environment? Free Range Studios just came out with this great new video that tells the whole story . . . how we use up nature in order to make toxic products that all end up in the dump. Watch the video and share it with your students and friends. All the facts are here, about external costs, mining, advertising, shopping, pollution, etc etc.

Don't worry! The story can have a happy ending . . . if you want it!

Watch the video.