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“Gardening is for old people,” one of the girls complained, with exasperated look at the ceiling and an emphatic wave of her hands. It was time for Sustainable Living Group and the girls weren’t happy. We were about to head outside to pull weeds and prep the beds for herbs and cauliflower starts. They had yet to understand why this was an activity they should look forward to. “Gardening isn’t just for old people,” I said. “It’s for everyone!”

Gorgeous sunflower on a summer day. Photo by Tiff.

Beautiful view of a sunflower.

This was a rather weak initial response and I didn’t quite know how to clearly and convincingly articulate this to the girls. At that point, it was most likely that they took my reply as an overly peppy intern’s attempt to sell the upcoming activity, which, I admit, was not a completely inaccurate assessment. But, regardless of how my response was interpreted, I really meant it—gardening is, indeed, for everyone. At the PIII gardens, here’s what we’re looking to cultivate:

1)    Learning.

A garden is a place where nature and culture come together. Because of this, gardens prompt conversation about biology, chemistry, politics, and history. A garden promotes critical thinking on a broad scale and encourages the consideration of how an ethical, sustainable, healthy food system might look.

2)    Community.

The PIII gardeners are looking to share produce with their peers and with the wider community of Frederic. The products of one garden, aptly named the “kitchen garden,” are for the residents of PIII and the assessment center to enjoy. The other garden, the “community garden,” grows food that the girls will donate to the local food pantry. The major focus of the community garden is cultivation of microgreens, tiny, lettuce-like leaves that are even more vitamin rich than their fully-grown vegetable counterparts. Microgreens are a much more nutritious alternative than the highly processed foods often donated to food pantries. As the girls of PIII share what they’ve grown with others, it is the hope that they will come to understand that gardens are a way to strengthen communities. Anyone, regardless of age, background, or economic status, can spread compassion through gardening.

3)    Agency.

A gardener has full control over the seeds they plant and how they tend to them. A gardener has the freedom to make their own choices about genetically modified seeds, fertilizers, and pesticides. A gardener knows exactly what’s in their food and how it got there. Cultivating a garden gives the girls of PIII an opportunity to be activists in their own backyard.

Looking delicious!

Looking delicious!

A new PIII program, Sustainable Living, looks to cultivate these ideas through a broad range of programming that extends even beyond the garden. This summer, the girls have trekked through the woods on a wild edibles hike; created colorful tie dyed socks and silk handkerchiefs with natural dyes made from beets, turmeric, cranberries, and blueberries; and will soon be visiting a local sustainable farm. The girls have also learned from important documentaries such as Fresh and King Corn and engaged in critical discussion about the implications of our choices as consumers. In the kitchen, they’ve learned simple ways to eat sustainably, healthily, and deliciously, by trying their hands at recipes for strawberry jam, strawberry pancake sauce, kale chips, and kale fruit smoothies.

Preparing the Kale Chips

Preparing Kale Chips

Dying Socks with Beets and Tumeric

Dying Socks with Beets and Turmeric

Getting creative with drip dye techniques

Getting creative with drip dye techniques

As an intern this summer, I was lucky to bear witness to the evolution of the girls’ understanding of a sustainable food system and their role within it. A few weeks ago, I began to see this emerge as I facilitated a discussion about seeds and seed sovereignty. As the girls learned about farmers’ limited rights, the social and environmental impacts of the industrialized food system, and the extinction of numerous important crop varieties over the past decades, I could see that this information had sparked both understanding and passion in their minds and hearts. In fact, their earnest eagerness to single-handedly change our food system was rather inspiring. “Let’s go to City Hall!” one of the girls exclaimed, punching her fist into the air. As the girls think critically, I can see sparks of understanding that those humble tires full of tomatoes in the Passage backyard are more than just humble tires full of tomatoes. Those little plants are about heirloom seeds and food freedom. The girls are beginning to see the microgreens as more than indistinctive green leaves in trays and rather as a way to uplift their community, something positive they can contribute. And they are starting to experience the strange and unique sense of accomplishment of planting something small, brown, and, to all appearances, lifeless, and seeing it grow, bloom, and ripen into something they can eat, enjoy, and say with pride that they grew themselves.

Freshly harvested radishes!

Freshly harvested radishes!

Cauliflower

Cauliflower. Yum!

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Pretty squash blossoms.

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