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Children & Community Gardens - a NY Kids/Westchester Parenthood Piece

  • Subject: [cg] Children & Community Gardens - a NY Kids/Westchester Parenthood Piece
  • From: Adam36055@aol.com
  • Date: Tue, 8 Apr 2003 12:07:59 EDT
  • Content-language: en


This is a general audience piece is about kids, community gardens and the use 
of this kind of public space by families. Looks like folks may be catching 


Adam Honigman


Parent Education and Support For Westchester's Families

By Larissa Phillips 

Like many city transplants, I grew up in a strictly non-urban environment. My 
family kept bees and chickens, and our vegetable garden was the size of an 
Olympic swimming pool. I spent summer mornings roaming barefoot through the 
rows of vegetables, nibbling on peas and sun-warmed cherry tomatoes. Long 
before baby vegetables were the rage among Manhattan chefs, my sister and I 
ate tiny carrots, just because we couldn’t wait for them to grow. 
Before you dig...
Tips for testing your soil
As much as I love the city, I sometimes feel the loss of that Soho loft-sized 
garden plot – especially when I watch my son turn up his nose at zucchini and 
carrots or when he asks me where grapes come from. But just as the city 
supplies almost everything you could ever want, so does it offer ample 
gardening opportunities for the concrete-weary and the garden-hungry.

More and more, green pockets are rising up out of the cement – in community 
gardens, window boxes, rooftops, even recycled tires and cracks in the 
cement. This is a great thing, especially for children, in ways that go 
beyond the nostalgia of a country-raised parent. A University of Illinois 
study showed that buildings surrounded by trees and greenery have fewer 
incidents of crime than buildings with no green. A related study showed 
decreased symptoms of attention deficit disorder (ADD) among children who 
play in green spaces as opposed to bare spaces. And neighborhood bonds were 
seen to be dramatically strengthened in areas where there are communal green 

Digging, Planting and Playing

But forget the studies and the statistics. Forget the nostalgia for country 
days gone by. The fact is, kids love to dig in the dirt. They love to roll in 
the grass. They love to handle seeds and garden tools and – whether their 
parents like it or not – worms and potato bugs and caterpillars. Give them a 
patch of dirt and they will dig. Or, as in the case of La Plaza Cultural, a 
community garden in the East Village, give them a giant nest and they will 
climb in and hang out. 

For parents who are unswayed, there is this fact: Kids who grow up gardening 
not only get to indulge in all these knee-staining, fingernail-dirtying, 
creative activities, they also tend to eat vegetables. There is something so 
magical and wondrous about planting a seed and watching it grow, it overcomes 
even the staunchest fear of green vegetables. 

The only issue left is: Where to go. As with most things in the city, the 
options are varied. 

Community Gardens

For most non-city dwellers, gardening is a solitary activity. It’s you, the 
earth and the weather. Bragging rights come later when you share your bounty 
with friends and neighbors. In the city, if you are a member of one of more 
than 700 community gardens, working the earth is anything but solitary. And 
that is part of the appeal.

"It’s fantastic," says Virginia Tillyard, a member of La Plaza Cultural. 
"It’s really been the focus of much of my daughter’s life." Starting when 
her daughter was about 6 months old, Tillyard and a few other mothers would 
meet in the garden. In the summertime, they set up a paddling pool for their 
kids. Then came puppet shows and theatrical events. 

Many blocks away, the Clinton Community Gardens at 48th Street and Eighth 
Avenue in Manhattan is providing a similar oasis for families and children 
and neighbors. One of the older community gardens in the city, this garden 
was transformed, beginning in 1978, from a garbage-strewn, rat-filled vacant 
lot into a place of pride and beauty for the neighborhood. "We had a lot of 
community support," says Adam Honigman, a member of the garden. "And one of 
the first things our community wanted was an open lawn. Now we have a lot of 
children who take their first steps on an open lawn in midtown Manhattan with 
no glass." One doesn’t actually have to live in midtown to appreciate the 
magnitude of this accomplishment.

Once kids get older, the benefits go beyond bare feet and paddle pools. "It’s 
a great place for introducing your kids to nature," Honigman says. "We have 
frogs. We have a beehive." 

Donald Loggins, one of the original gardeners at the city’s oldest community 
garden, the Liz Christy Garden in the East Village, says, "My impression is 
that kids love seeing nature. We have fruit trees. We have kids who have 
never seen a peach on a peach tree. We have grapevines. They’ve never seen 
that. It opens their eyes."

At many community gardens, there are plots just for children. Peter Arnstedt, 
a member of La Perla Community Garden on the Upper West Side, brings 
kindergartners and first graders to the garden and lets them plant seeds in a 
plot laid out just for them. After dividing the children into groups of six, 
he sets them to various tasks, such as scavenger hunts and planting projects, 
and watches their discoveries. "They start to look at some of the things they 
might not notice," he says. "They get to handle worms and they see other bugs 
that are part of healthy soil. They get to plant seeds." The lessons can be 
long lasting, but Arnstedt is more concerned with their immediate reactions. 
"The main thing is it opens their eyes," he says. "The next time they’re 
walking down the street and they see a pod from a honey locust tree, they’ll 
make the connection. They’ll say, 'Oh, can I plant that seed?'"

Learning Through Digging

These connections are deemed so worthwhile that even the city is involved, 
through the Open Space Greening Program, a part of The Council on the 
Environment of New York City. Through this program, kids in public schools 
and daycare are hooked up with community gardens. The opportunities for 
learning through gardening, says Gerhard Lordahl, director of the program’s 
Plant-a-Lot Project, are tremendous. "One group we work with in midtown 
buried things in the garden to learn about composting and decay. They buried 
a metal can and banana peels, and six months later dug them up and looked at 
what decomposed and what didn’t."

Classroom lessons are taught, too. "We’ve made alphabet gardens. Teachers can 
hold a reading lesson around a tree," he says. One teacher did a lesson on 
water words. "They had watering cans and they talked about the importance of 
water, and the kids actively participated in watering the garden. The 
connection is made," he says. Another group of older kids investigated the 
ways in which medicinal herbs are used. "The kids built a teepee and erected 
it in the garden, and they made smudge pots. There’s a whole wealth of 
interdisciplinary lessons available." 

Botanical Gardens

Another great resource for young would-be urban farmers are the city’s 
botanical gardens, which offer classes and workshops specifically geared 
toward children of different ages. 

John Tucker, a Brooklyn dad, sent his 4-year-old son, Jack, to the 
kindergarten class at the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens last summer. "I came to 
pick him up one afternoon and I saw him standing with another kid. Jack had 
both his arms up in the air. He was holding a carrot, which he’d just pulled 
from the soil. This was a carrot from a carrot seed, which he had planted 
himself, and watered and watched grow. The look on his face was incredible. 
He was thrilled."

Ellen McCarthy, the family garden manager at The New York Botanical Garden 
has seen this thrill in countless kids. "They get so excited," she says. She 
also confirms the popular notion that kids who grow their own vegetables 
often discover an appreciation for the taste of their bounty. "So many 
parents say, ‘My child never eats vegetables! I can’t believe they like 
this,’" she says. 

More Outdoor Learning

McCarthy describes three separate ways for children to get their hands dirty 
in the garden. First, children can come in with their classes and teachers 
and learn about gardening and maybe pot a plant. Second, kids can enroll in 
classes and have their own garden plot. In the third, a drop-in program lets 
families come in every afternoon and work with seeds or transplants or 

Like the community gardens, the botanic gardens make gardening fun through 
the use of whimsy. "We have specialty gardens," says McCarthy. "We have a 
candy garden, with plants named after candy. Like Chocolate Cosmos and Candy 
Lilies. We have sun and moon gardens and a little truck garden, with trucks 
planted with flowers."

"The neatest part of my job," she says, "is that we get to bring kids in 
touch with nature. We get a lot of kids from the Bronx or from big apartment 
buildings with no backyard. The simplest thing, like picking a pea, they 
think is the greatest."

And, squeamish city parents, like it or not, she confirms the worst. "Kids 
love worms. They like to dig for them. We have a big worm bin." 

So maybe all gardening, and all nature, is not glorious sunflowers and 
pristine organic salads. But it really is fun. Worms and all. Just ask your 

Before You Dig ...

Parents everywhere should test their soil before planting a garden, but city 
gardeners are especially likely to encounter soil that contains heavy metals. 
To avoid harmful lead exposure to children (who are at the greatest risk), 
the Cornell University Urban Horticulture Institute suggests these tips:

• Get a soil test kit. For $22.50, Cornell will send you a kit. Send payment 
to Cornell Nutrient Analysis Laboratories, 804 Bradfield Hall, Cornell 
University, Ithaca, NY 14853. Or call 607-255-4540. Make sure to specify that 
it is a lead test you want. (For $15, they will test the nutrients and pH of 
your soil.)

• Since lead tends to reside in the leaves and stems of vegetables, avoid 
growing lettuce and spinach in soil that could contain lead.

• Peel root vegetables, such as carrots and beets.

• Wear gloves and wash hands thoroughly after working in the garden. 

• Stick to fruit crops, such as tomatoes, peppers and squash, since lead is 
not concentrated in the fruit of the plant.

• If your soil contains lead, or if you are near a heavily trafficked area, 
play it safe: Go with a garden of flowers and shrubs. 




• A Tree Is Nice, by Janice May Udry, HarperCollins Juvenile Books, 1988. A 
whimsical look at the many ways a tree helps us out.

• The Carrot Seed, by Ruth Krauss and Crockett Johnson, HarperTrophy reprint, 
1989. A classic, simple story about a little boy who plants a carrot seed, 
waters it and waits for it grow.

• Roots, Shoots, Buckets & Boots: Gardening Together With Children, by Sharon 
Lovejoy Green, Workman, 1999. A fun and informative book about gardening, 
with suggestions on how to make a pizza garden or a sunflower house.

• Seedfolks, by Paul Fleischman, HarperTrophy, 1999. A blighted neighborhood 
is transformed when a little girl plants a few lima beans in a vacant lot. 
Slowly, the neighborhood is brought together as they watch the plants grow 
and then turn the littered lot into a garden for the whole community. 

• The Ugly Vegetables, by Grace Lin, Charlesbridge Publishing, 1999. A young 
girl can’t understand why her mother is planting wrinkled leaves and dark 
vines when all the neighbors are growing beautiful flowers. But when the 
harvested Chinese vegetables have been transformed into a delicious-smelling 
soup, neighbors appear at the door with flowers, hungry to share.


• Battery Park City Parks Conservancy – 212-267-9700, www.bpcparks.org – A 
private, nonprofit organization that operates 32 acres of open space in 
Battery Park City. Offers gardening programs for children.

• Brooklyn Botanic Garden – 718-623-7200, www.bbg.org – Classes, workshops, 
children’s classes and an incredible children’s garden.

• The New York Botanical Garden – 718-817-8700, www.nybg.org – A 
self-described "advocate for the plant kingdom," the NYBG is also a great 
resource for humans. 

• Queens Botanical Garden – 718-886-3800, www.queensbotanical.org – 
Educational programs, classes and workshops for all ages.


• Green Guerillas – 212-594-2155, www.greenguerillas.org – The people to go 
to when you think the rubble-strewn lot in your neighborhood could be 
something more or when your grassroots gardening group needs some back-up. 

 • Open Space Greening Program – 212-788-7900, 
www.cenyc.org/HTMLOSP/publictn.htm – A division of the Council on the 
Environment of New York City, this program is the official backer of 
community gardens both old and new around the city. They have a tool-loaning 
program for gardens or schools that need a little material assistance.

 Larissa Phillips is the associate editor of New York Family.


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