Working with herbs and student gardeners is a brush with buried ancient truths. Herbal medicine is human kind's prehistoric health care built on 10,000 years of collective agriculture and spanning the continents. Humans back in the day survived on natural wisdom many seem to have now forgotten or been torn from, depending on how you look at it.
But in garden class, deeply buried agricultural instincts surface. I give students herb work and watch them settle into deep rooted natural rhythms.
The busiest of third-grade boys will sit in one place to trim lemongrass for 30 minutes straight without breaks or many wiggles. Girls of all ages will gather around a bowl of dried rosemary or sage; instinctively sitting in a circle, cross-legged, talking softly about whatever, taking breaks for deep, close-eyed inhales of their wonderfully-scented hands.
This week, 11 seventh and eighth grade girls and boys sat in reverant near-silence as dried plantain and rosemary they grew, harvested, and dried was blended with other ingredients to create medicinal, herbal salve. More honor students than impossible tweens, salve-makers spoke in whispers and jotted notes absorbed from their first lesson with beeswax and a double boiler.
Students left with their own labeled jar of salve so they could medicate cuts, bruises, and rashes safely, cheaply, and effectively at will. One boy immediately put the self-made medicine with the surf stuff in his backpack while a girl spoke of the treatments she could share with her accident-prone younger sister.
What would happen if hormone-aly challenged adolesence all over America were as armed with lavendar and lemon balm as they were with Twilight and texting?
I sub'ed for our PE teacher last week. With her permission, I used the opportunity to get some desperately needed, heavy lifting work completed. Plus, I had been tasked with getting kids to work out. What better garden excersise is there than wheelbarrow mulch-moving, mulch spreading, rock hauling, and rock wall building?
Extreme Gardening was on!
The 3/4 graders shoveled wheelbarrows full of mulch from the pile to the patch and dumped it inside an encloser that other students were expanding with rocks hauled alongside wheelbarrows. Other students spread the mulch evenly inside the encloser. "Look, Ms. Krista," pointed out one girl with a sparkly pink scarf around her neck, "I got scrapes from the rocks kind of and it doesn't even hurt," as she bounded away to get more rocks. Sweaty and dirt-streaked, students headed back to class feeling invigorated. I hope their classrooms weren't too potent for their teachers.
The 1/2 grades were given the task of building "the school's biggest rock ring" that would "save the mango tree that is so thirsty from this drought." "We can mulch it!" yelled out one excited boy. "That's right," but "we must build the ring first." Our massive mango tree is at least 30 years old, weathered and in need of some nutrients. It yields some of the best mangos I've tasted. "Anyone here like mangos?" Hands shot up with little bodies as if lifted by the perfection of those mangos. They worked by themselves and in groups to move the mound of rocks I had hauled up from the fill pile earlier. Some grabbed fist sized rocks and started filling in gaps while others sough out only the hugest stones in the pile and along the fence. The only rocks off-limits where those in existing rock rings, so the kids took off like worker bees after prized rocks. Sweaty and pink cheeked, the littles had that ring built in 15 minutes flat.
The 5/6 graders voted extreme gardening down and opted for a game of Nation Ball. Why not? The option was there and I needed a break! Extreme gardening was tough on substitutes too.
Gene the Soil Whisperer and Mr. G the Fasilities Specialist taught me something new. When it comes to trees (or plants I guess) and rock rings built around them, it's best to build them at least out to match the canopy of the tree. I have been instructing students to build rings two feet out, maybe, from the trunk of the tree. In biological reality, rings should be at least out another two feet so that if drips were falling from leaves, they would fall on the mulch inside the ring.
Rock rings are invaluable on our campus, to hold in mulch and moisture and keep out pigs, balls, and froliking children.
Come to find out, the roots of the tree grow under the ground at least as far as the canopy extends. These fine feeler roots sponge up nutrients and moisture from the soil for the entire tree. The larger tap roots are found underground closer to the trunk and lend more stability than nutrient-sucking abilities. Fertilizer should also be spread out where feeler roots can find it. An expanded rock ring or a rock ring to encompass and entire area produces more microbes and allows more nutrients to get to the right plant places than mini-rings.
Thanks Soil Whisper and Mr. G.
My vote for the MVP (most valuable plant) in our Wonder Gardens is the beloved Makalapua. A leggy bush I look up at with lavendar, star-shaped buds the size of half dollars, "crown flower" is a staple of the Monarch butterfly's ravenous catepillar. Every stage of the stunning butterfly's life cycle is apparent on the bush - miraculously-spotted, yellow striped babies; hungry, adult catepillars so big you can watch their mouths open and close as they devour leaves; lime green chyrsalis with gold thread spots; glossy brown chrysalis opaque with the threat of bursting open; adult butterflies in soaring, skirting fly-bys.
It's true that bugs bring bugs. As a hub of bug activity, students have observed praying mantis stalk and kill bees; centepedes curled up on lower leaves so they can pounce on passing by cockroaches; mama butterfly lay one freckle-sized egg in the cup of a leaf; chrysalis gently crack open to let a new, wet-winged butterfly emerge. Children of all ages stare with fascination at the sqirming life cycle before them.
Last week for some unseen reason, the Makalapua took center stage in garden class. The bush sits out of recess boundaries. The only time students get to bond with the bush is during garden class but for some reason, groups of students were found around the off-limits bush in various stages of wonder - catepillar-draped children, children capturing catepillars and secluding them to boxes only to abandom them when the bell rang, sweet little girls petting catepillars with extreme care.
I knew they needed time with the bush to learn how to handle being so close to something so inviting and squiggly and NOT PICKING THEM UP. Maintaining and slowing down and watching the catepillars and not needing to handle them is hard when you are three and a half feet tall. Holding them and not accidentally and tragically killing them is even harder. "How would you like to be cruising at home, eating dinner, when a big hand lifts off your roof and picks you up off the couch and puts you on his shoulder and walks far away from your home over hot rocks and dry lava gravel and then puts you down and walks away?" How can chrysalis form if the catepillars are spead all over campus, away from their food? How can butterflys hatch if chysalis can't be formed?
I invite anyone reading this to come check out this fascinating plant. The lessons it teaches are priceless. The beneficial insects it invites to the garden are invaluable. Makalapua also grows by cuttings and I know where there's a healthy bush.....
I leave garden class everyday thankful for a heart swelled with hope and love. Very toucy-feely sounding, I know, but true. It's the little things that garden students say and do that remind me every time that our future is safe in the hands of these forward-thinking mahi'ai (cultivators of food).
One little second grader today, a brown-haired mini-genius missing a front tooth and wearing a fushia headband that matched the pink leggings setting off her jean mini-skirt and leapard print, fur-lined boots confided to me at the begining of class, "Miss Krista, whenever I come to garden, I feel really close to nature." I was dumbfounded. All I could say was, "I'm so glad. How does it feel to be close to nature?" "Good," she answered.
In my next class, 3/4 grade, we had a major breakthrough. I've been trying to figure out how to "chip" potassium-rich spent banana trunks for quicker integration into our garden beds and compost. A group of garden warriors in training stumbled upon an answer: give four 9/10 year old boys dull garden sheers, a cut down banana trunk, and a challenge to work together to safely dismantle the entire stalk. Within minutes, the boys discovered that spreading out down the banana log, jabbing the sheers into the down stump and then rapidly opening and closing the stuck sheers ripped the stalk to shreds in no time at all. While the banana tree pieces were amended into garden soil by other students, I congratulated the boys for sucessfully inventing a vital new garden method. They knuckle-bumped each other, sweat dripping down their faces, and headed to the hose for a drink.
Then there was the 7/8 graders and the salsa challenge/bean feed. We've discovered that one food crop that does grow through drought and neglect tempered with alot of love are these beautiful, spotted purple and white, lima beans. The kids love them boiled with salt, pepper, and onion, like Latino-style pintos. I drain them, sprinkle them with cheese, as eager kids and doubtful kids alike scoop them up and devour them with corn chips or corn tortillas we hand make. The salsa challenge was a way to incorporate random garden items - tomatoes, lilikoi, raddish, papaya, and lime - into something to complement the beans. The challenge was on as students worked together to slice the salsa items and invent different combinations. We ended up with limey guacamole, lilikoi/papaya/tomato/cilantro/onion salsa, radish/lime/tomato/cilantro salsa and three clear winners. A huge pot of beans, salsa reminents, and chips were shared with the rest of the Jr. High at lunch. A sub teacher said, "I've never seen beans that big and beautiful." Miss Meg, lead 7/8 grade teacher added, "I've never seen 40 kids lined up to eat lima beans."
It goes without saying that these relevations flavor my day with uplifting vibes and hope. There is great power in the natural positivity of children. I feel lucky to be able to tap into their infinite energy and work with these little bundles of wisdom to secure a sustainable future.
Ms Krista says:
Everyday encounters with real garden sprites; tortuous panorama of the surf; old-growth collards; machete lessons; mantis rehab; pesto pasta. Days as a public school garden teacher on the Big Island are filled with unexpected gems of wisdom and infinite inspirations. Introducing my life as a school garden teacher...