A Century Of Sowing Seeds

Approaching its 100th birthday, the country’s oldest children’s garden gets young hands into city soil.

The Brooklyn Botanic Garden may be best known as a place to ogle orchids, show your kids real lily pads and experience cherry blossom nirvana, but for 98 forward-thinking years it has been at the forefront of the real food revolution.

Way back in 1914, a lifetime before Alice Waters launched the Edible Schoolyard, the BBG’s half-acre Children’s Garden began providing city kids with the space, tools and guidance to grow their own food, making it the oldest such initiative in the country.

The storied Children’s Garden was the brainchild of a visionary strong-willed young schoolteacher named Ellen Eddy Shaw, who joined the Garden’s staff in 1913. Driven by a conviction that all children should experience growing their own food, she founded the Children’s Garden one year later, establishing it as an inspira- tional, educational space for city youth to learn to cultivate their own produce from seed to harvest. Within three years, the plot had a waitlist.

Today 800 kids sign up each year—aged two (accompanied by a caregiver) through 17, paying $100–$225, depending on age—to work outdoor beds in spring, summer and fall. Each session meets a few hours a week for about seven weeks, with all ages working at once in age-specific circles—teens planning their plots; tots digging like sandbox players with a purpose.

In winter, grounds yield greens under row covers while botanical tours and potting lessons convene in the atrium. Come spring, kids prepare beds, transplant seedlings and scatter seeds. By summer, sunflowers and corn are taller than teenagers. Fall’s crop of students arguably has it best, reaping the literal fruits of their predecessors’ labor. An indoor kitchen space spins out salads, kale chips and other post-harvest recipes, but most of the crops go home for kids to show off and share. Many students apply for multiple seasons to experience the full cycle, and not a few come back year after year.

As experts have realized that children’s gardens plant the seeds for lifelong health, the century-old institution has gained international acclaim.

“We’re delighted that we’re not the only game in town, that schools can learn from us,” says BBG vice president of education Sharon Myrie, whose office wall of archival photos shows the days when the flowery green space was foreground to Ebbets Field and nearby factories. The world outside the garden walls is unrecog- nizable now, but other than the atrium and kitchen added in the late ’90s, the program has changed little over the last century. Like so many before them, this year’s gardeners will pull weeds, train climbing vines and eventually harvest everything from tomatoes and lettuces to kohlrabi and rutabaga.

“They love it. They could spend an hour in that mulch pile,” says garden curator Dave Daly, who bears a B.S. in agriculture from California State University and a background as an environmental educator. “Like, this Friday, we’re going to lay hay into the pathways, and I already know it’s going to go over big.”

The tens of thousands of children who raised their own romaine, romano beans and radishes here over the past century include a few alums who went on to became some of the most instrumental players in the modern farm-to-table movement. Crown Heights–born Bob Lewis, who cofounded the Greenmarket in 1976 and remains a markets mastermind at the New York Department of Agriculture, remembers the magic of snapping beans and pulling up lettuce when he was just a sprout himself, in the 1950s.

“Look, I had enlightened parents,” recalls Lewis. They’d spend summers upstate, “where the country still felt like the country.”

Still, visiting farms is one thing. “I saw [the Children’s Garden] as an opportunity to be my own farmer,” recalls Lewis—whose hard-earned city harvest included spectacular sweet corn, which his mom would boil for dinner.

Time in the garden teaches kids lessons that go beyond soil science. “If we had a clod of dirt on our hoe or trowel, that did not go back on the rack,” says Annie Hauck-Lawson, co-editor of Gastropolis: Food & New York City. A BBG-certified master composter, she teaches others the value of healthy soil and the underrated ease of recycling food scraps in the city, and traces much of that sensibility to her formative years at the Children’s Garden. Born of a sustainability-minded family, she jokes that she was fated to work a plot there. “We’re four generations of growers, foragers, fishers and composters in Brooklyn,” says Hauck-Lawson of her family. Over the 1970s, she worked her way up as a child gardener through the seasons for nine years, ultimately acquiring as much farming knowledge as any country kid.

By high school, she researched companion planting through books provided by BBG—“planting radishes between cabbages puts back into the soil what cabbages take out,” she recalls decades later. Eventually appointed “Girl President” of the garden, she called order at group meetings—“There was even a mallet!”—and remembers sifting peat, soil and sand to pot plants during winter sessions in the greenhouse atrium. But all that work left plenty of time for play: Hauck-Lawson recalls a 23-pound zucchini used as a bat for an impromptu baseball game: “Everyone got to throw rocks till it broke.”

Today’s youngsters’ pastimes have evolved a bit: They can be found paring off into Iron Chef competitions, setting up a BBG-staff-exclusive farm stand and sharing their harvest with students at neighboring Prospect Heights High. But the core concepts are unchanged.

“It’s an anchor for urban gardening in Brooklyn,” says Hauck- Lawson, who still remembers walking under the entrance’s scripted words: “He is happiest who has power to gather wisdom from a flower.”

Indeed children here learn much bigger life lessons than just how to grow beans. “It’s like a cemetery,” says Lewis. “You’re passing space that is sacred to others to find the place that was assigned to you, but you’re passing through a larger whole, which you are a member of.”

As experts realize that children’s gardens help establish lifelong health, the one founded at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden way back in 1904 has gained international acclaim.

Like so many before them, this year’s young gardeners will pull weeds, train climbing vines and eventually harvest everything from tomatoes and lettuces to kohlrabi and rutabaga.

Generations of germination. Nearly a thousand city kids sign up to work the garden each year. Teens plan plots while tots dig like sandbox players with a purpose.

Photo credit:  Louis Buhle and Joseph O. Holmes.

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Jessie Cacciola is a freelance food writer in New York with roots as an intern at Gourmet, Edible Finger Lakes and Time Out New York. Her work has appeared in the latter two as well as on Salon.com and The Atlantic Food Channel.