« Eco Align helps you buy LESS from their clients | Main | Time to start a class war... »

August 23, 2008

Plant a garden. Save some money. Grow a kid.

I lost Victoria, my mentee, to a foster home this week. Well... I didn't really lose her, but she has moved out of the teen shelter where we gardened together for the past couple of years. Today (for the first time) she woke up in a home with a real backyard. She's over the top happy - Aiden has other kids his age to hang with and Starbucks, her lifeline, is just around the corner.

Victoria arrived at the shelter a couple of years ago wearing the same Rolling Stones T-shirt of my gen-gen-generation and carrying the same attitude. I was smitten. I took this video of she and Aiden planting potatoes last April and kidded her that we needed to start a show called, YouTuber.

Victoria insisted we needed to plant potatoes. You can see how hard it is. Slice up a potato and stick a section with an "eye" in it in the ground. That's it. When it flowers, you can start digging up potatoes, or leave them in the ground and you'll get more and more. We had about 20 potatoes off of one plant. That's a great RORP (return on rotten potatoes that formally were trashed at the shelter).

To most of the girls at the teen home I was "that strange garden lady" who showed up once a week and pushed plants and cooking pasta with fresh basil, sage, oregano - the same thing my Mother and Grandmother did for me. Coming from the midwest to California, I assumed that everyone knew how to stick a seed in the ground. They didn't. In Orange County gardens are a mystery not a backyard sport.

Victoria was one of the few gals who actually digged dirt. After awhile she started putting in requests, "Can we grow Lemons? Onions? Strawberries? Yes, Yes, and YES! This year was the best crop of strawberries due to the irrigation system the boyscouts put in as part of an Eagle Scout program. It was amazing how things would grow with consistent water. Each day, Aiden would run to the strawberry box and clean off the new offerings then head for the tomatoes.

After years of trial and error trying to keep a group with a high turnover rate engaged, I found four things worked:

  1. Teach those most interested and they will then teach others vs. shoving a program on those who don't care or are freaked over the fact that worms live in the soil.
  2. Make laminated signs that tell them what the plant is, when to harvest and how much money they saved if they started with a plant vs. a seed (BTW, with tomatoes it's about $.0003 if you grow it from a seed given that each healthy plant produces one bushel.)
  3. Plant the entire section with ONE plant - it tends to self weed and also is more gratifying when it starts kicking out the edibles. It made an impact to see bags of free food.
  4. COOK, COOK, COOK the fresh food in front of them. Show them how easy, fun and great tasting fresh food is. Let them taste the dried herbs in a can and then the fresh ones.

Cooking closes the loop between planting a seed and enjoying your labor. I tried having a formal cooking class and that didn't work. What did work was bringing things in and then just start cooking. One by one, they would gather around and start asking questions. Even the staff, would join in as many of them didn't know how to cook fresh food either. Later I'd hear snips of conversation that told me that the lessons were being picked up and transferred.

One time we used a restaurant menu and fixed the exact same dish for free that they would have paid $18.50 for just to make a point. The simplest things that went over the best. Blanched green beans dipped in peanut sauce. They wouldn't touch them before and afterward the entire bowl of beans disappeared. Dicing up fresh herbs in cream cheese for a spread. Spaghetti sauce from way too many tomatoes. Coleslaw. TONS of salsa...

This year when tomatoes were taken off store shelves, we had bags of them to enjoy, all organically grown and safe to eat. One year the same plant produced tomatoes for 9 months, right up until the hired "gardeners" cut the plants back into a nice little hedge...


What did we grow? Artichokes, green/yellow beans, cilantro, basil, sage, oregano, marjoram, chives, parsley, tomatoes, tomatias, spinach, mixed greens lettuce (the kind you pay $5/pound for in the store), strawberries, oranges, beets, eggplant, zucchini, watermelons, broccoli, cauliflower, honeydews, cabbage, Swiss Chard, cantaloupe, spaghetti squash, pumpkins, corn, onions, carrots, peppers and zinnias. (That's an artichoke that I'm standing next to for those of you not living in California.)

The zinnias were an ode to my Mom. She always had a row of them in our garden. They are easy, happy flowers that keep producing as long as you keep picking them. Plus you need flowers to bring in the few bees we have here to pollinate the veggies. Besides drawing bees, they also drew the girls out of the shelter and into the garden for a fresh (and free) bouquet - hey whatever works.

What NOT to grow (or if you do, put it in a steel lined pot) SPEARMINT. It took over an entire box and is now sending up shoots 20 feet away!  DO GROW Chocolate Mint, it's less invasive and the girls love making tea out of it. It's like eating a thin mint girl scout cookie. Before Victoria left she clipped down the Spearmint patch and gave away garbage bags full of it. Considering that you pay $2/plastic box for mint in the store, she had about $500 of the stuff.

I am so proud of Victoria. It's been inspiring to watch her grow. She's worked overtime to skip a grade and get on track to have her Associates Degree by the time she turns 18. She cares for the earth and others and the bigger picture. She can discuss politics or climate change with depth as easily as what depth to plant a bean seed. I don't know if she'll want to stay in touch after she's emancipated from the system, but I know the lessons she learned in the garden will stay with her for a lifetime.



TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Plant a garden. Save some money. Grow a kid.:


Mary, that is a beautiful story. I wish you lived near me so we could garden together!


Great story plus lots of good gardening info!

Thanks for sharing@

you will miss her... I am envious of your years of garden experiences especially the knowledge that was passed on to you -- I too would love it if you were my neighbor and we could garden together

Great tips and story. Love it. thanks for sharing. Can you come cook for my family? :)

Katy at http://www.non-toxickids.net

The comments to this entry are closed.