For the past couple of months, my good deed for the week has been to go to my youngest daughter’s school and work with the children on their veg plots. Built only a few years ago, the soil therein is depleted and ravaged by weeds that fly in from surrounding fields. Whether the carrot fly and the aphids will follow as our crops develop, I don’t yet know. I wish I had had some help and foresight, then I would have imported a load of manure to start the season. As it is, this is wing-and-a-prayer horticulture, but at least it gives these twenty-first century young urbanites the chance to discover where their food comes from, and the potential for creating it themselves.
‘Urgh – Miss!’ is the commonest first response as I crouch down to the earth and tweezer out a speedwell plant. It’s not killing that pretty creeper that they object to, it’s my touching the soil. ‘That’s disgusting!’
‘What’s disgusting about earth!’ I respond. ‘It’s what all of us become in the end…’
That shuts them up. Some of them get quite philosophical at the thought. Most of them are prepared, eventually, to crouch alongside me and inspect this death-and-life stuff that they have never touched before.
The fact is that, even before our seeds go in, the beds are teeming with activity. Spiders send the girls squealing to the other side of the garden; the boys stand there gloating at female silliness, but generally don’t dare get any closer to the arachnids. Worms receive an interesting mixture of tenderness and disgust – one group of eight year-olds bothered to pick up a good half dozen in hot, sweaty hands and coraled them in what they named the ‘worm farm’. Ants seem to be the scariest of the bugs and beasties, though I do try to encourage the children to watch them – a great example of diligence and team work, I always think.
Nature has many lessons to teach, of course (and it’s amazing how well a small group of children concentrate outside the classroom). My students all perk up when I ask what weeds are….my favorite allusion being that they are the bullies of the garden and need getting rid of before they make life hell for the rest of us. They like putting the baby seeds to bed – amazingly gentle as they filter the earth through their young fingers and pat it in place with their palms. They love the watering, jostling to get hold of that weapon that can accidentally spray half a dozen peers and even when empty doubles as a mean machine gun.
My best moment so far was at the end of one arduous session, standing up to uncurl my aching spine and survey the work. There was young Indra from year 3, her face up-raised and smiling.
‘I never knew growing things was such fun!’ she beamed.