Planting Edmonds: The littlest gardeners

Planting Edmonds is a monthly column written by and for local gardeners – of all ages.

There is a preschool behind my house, aptly called “Bloom.” This tale starts with balls and toys flying over the fence. Sometimes I lob them back, which the kids think is hilarious, and then a row of heads will pop up and shout, “Hi, Miss Marty!”

The kids often take their nature walks down our street, and they’ll stop and sniff flowers or pick up blossoms and leaves for their scientific studies. Occasionally, they’ll bring a giant bag to collect all the toys that have sailed over the fence.

On the rope line, with Miss Erika and Miss Shannon.

At Halloween, all the classes — including teachers and parents — dress up and parade down our street. The neighbors make a big deal of it, coming out in costume and handing out candy. 

One day Shannon Clarke, who teaches the 3- and 4-year-olds with co-teacher Erika Hill, asked if their kids could do a community service project for me, so I had them pull weeds.

A few months later they wanted another project. Because preschoolers are close to the ground and full of energy, I asked them to pick up pinecones. They picked up more than 2,000 (except one little boy, who carefully took them out of the bucket and put them back where he found them).     

From there our connection has grown organically (pun, sorry) into a full-fledged gardening class once a week. 

Left: A shovel-ready project. Right: Planting strawberries.

To build two new raised veggie beds, I had to dig out a lot of sod, but that turned out to be the most fun of all because the soil we unearthed (sorry again) was full of worms.

Three-year-olds LOVE worms. Turns out, Shannon was the champion worm finder, and we had an amazing day playing with worms and rehoming them in our new raised beds. One worm was so huge it looked like a small snake.

Hügelkultur

We are practicing Hügelkultur, which means piling up vegetation that will break down into natural fertilizer over time. We put cardboard under the new beds, then a wire mesh to keep out the moles and voles, then layered the bottom with small logs, medium sticks and tiny twigs. 

I had to laugh because the kids would run from the stick pile to the box, each carefully holding a single tiny twig. It took a long time to fill the bottom of the bed. Over the sticks, we dumped a layer of soggy, chopped-up leaves that had wintered over. Only then did we add a soil planting mix.

Adding soil.
The new bed with the soil and plants.

The new soil is full of pill bugs, tiny spiders and other crawlies, and the kids gleefully let them crawl over their hands. Three-year-olds love bugs almost as much as they love worms, all except one little girl who is afraid of bugs. She was OK standing under the tree until she realized she was standing on grass that had bugs in it. She had to be carried for a while until she got distracted.

Even with the new beds, we didn’t have enough planting space, so we filled lots of pots with flowers, then strawberry plants and some potatoes that had sprouted in my pantry. Four more pots have leftover bush beans that didn’t fit into the beds.

Watering one bed and lots of pots.

From seeds to plants to veggies

Well, we couldn’t stop. It’s one thing to plant a piece of potato, but how would you know that putting tiny little carrot and lettuce seeds into dirt would create vegetables you can eat?

The kids would hold out their hands, and I’d shake a few seeds into them, and then they would “plant” them. I asked one little girl where her seeds went, and it became obvious when she shrugged “I don’t know” with her hands; so cute.

Some of the seeds actually made it into the soil. About two weeks later lettuce and carrot seedlings popped up in clumps, so now we are learning how to thin them. How exciting is it to discover that thinning carrots means pulling up miniature carrots you can eat?

Sugar snap peas and bush beans were easier to plant because the seeds are bigger. Peas look like peas (though not like sugar snaps) but bean seeds do not look like green beans.

Onions and leeks are not kid favorites to eat, but they are fun to plant, even though it’s hard to figure out which is the pointy end of an onion bulb.

Cauliflowers, cucumbers, zucchini and pumpkins all look similar when they are young. We planted them, but now we have to wait — and wait and wait to see what veggies they turn into. 

Left: Building a zucchini hill. Right: Zucchini now.

Last class we discovered a tiny little cauliflower growing in the center of some giant leaves. 

When I pointed out baby strawberries developing on our plants, one little guy said “but they’re green!” It’s fascinating to watch the light go on.

Two weeks later, I cut up the first two ripe strawberries into small pieces so everyone could taste them, and they wanted more. Now we get enough berries for everybody, every time.

The first sugar snap peas were fun. The kids can spot the peas at their eye level, even though the plants grow high over their heads. They picked enough to each try one.

We learned to “unzip” them by pulling the stringy bit off. Then we sang a song and tasted them. Some kids wanted more, some didn’t like them at all, and one wouldn’t try. 

Unfortunately, we discovered that our pea patch has three different kinds of peas all growing together, so we had to practice pea forensics and hold them up to the sun to see if they were snow peas, sugar snaps, or shelling (English) peas.

What we learned is that we need to be more careful when planting pea seeds. Biting into an English pea expecting a sugar snap gives you a mouthful of fiber. Yech. But it’s really fun to open the pod and find those perfect little peas.

Class time is half gardening and half playing

One little boy has extra energy and runs around and around the beds before he’s ready to settle down and garden. All the kids are distracted by the tree swing nearby.

We garden a little and run around a lot. When the cherry tree dropped its blossoms, the class spent most of the time playing in the deep, fluffy flowers that covered the ground; then they took a bag of blossoms back to class for an art project.

They LOVE watering the garden. One young guy aimed the hose at his own legs and couldn’t figure out how to twist it away – a good reason preschool parents provide backup outfits. In the hot weather, if you hear screaming it’s because they think it’s a riot when Miss Marty sprays them with the hose.

Like learning to play an instrument, gardening happens slowly over time, but unlike learning an instrument, gardening doesn’t reward you instantly. At least with an instrument, you can hear a sound; when you put a seed in the ground, nothing visible happens for weeks.

We fill the time with games — a scavenger hunt, matching pictures of veggies to their plants, sniffing flowers, tasting herbs or looking for tiny plums on the plum tree.

The kids surprised me recently with a beautiful handmade present: They painted rocks with their names on them to decorate our garden, so when I realized what great artists they are, I asked them to decorate my shed.

Our visit to the food bank

Nearly all the veggies we grow go to the Edmonds Food Bank. Earlier this month we took a field trip to the Food Bank where the kids delivered their salad greens, spinach, onions, leeks, sugar snaps and herbs to the produce team. The volunteers gave them a wonderful warm reception and they got to meet Director Casey Davis. 

Gabrielle Catton, volunteer coordinator at the food bank, wrote: “How fun to have these little gardeners bring their produce into the food bank and present it to our sorters. It is so wonderful for young people to learn how to grow food and the process of prepping, planting, tending, and harvesting! I love the idea, Marty, and we loved hosting Bloom Academy. What a great partnership!”

The kids walked a half-mile each way to the food bank and still had energy left over to roll down the hill and eat garden-themed cookies.

Does gardening benefit kids?

There’s an old joke that if you want a strong immune system, you should lick the pole in the New York subway. That may be a bridge too far but playing in (and possibly ingesting) dirt can be good for kids.

A recent study in Finland claims gardening with kids is more than just fun. “When daycare workers … allowed children to care for crops in planter boxes, the diversity of microbes in the guts and on the skin of the young kids appeared healthier in a concise space of time … Compared to other city kids who play in standard urban daycare with yards of pavement, tile, and gravel, 3-, 4-, and 5-year-olds at these greened-up daycare centers in Finland showed increased T-cells and other important immune markers in their blood within 28 days.

“Among kids who got outside – playing in the dirt, the grass, and among the trees – an increase in a microbe called gammaproteobacteria appeared to boost the skin’s immune defense, as well as increase helpful immune secretions in the blood and reduce the content of interleukin-17A, which is connected to immune-transmitted diseases.”

Miriam Dressler, co-owner of Bloom, writes, “our preschoolers have gained so much from the opportunity to plant, grow, and harvest the vegetables. Real life, authentic learning experiences are very powerful for young children, and this experience has definitely provided the children with an appreciation for the natural world.”

Pulling out old spinach.

As I write this, we are studying mason bees and honeybees. The mason bees have fuzzy bodies and as they belly-flop onto the flowers they pick up loads of pollen to spread. The honeybees are more fastidious and pollinate less, but they produce enough honey for themselves and for us, too. Of course, the kids get to taste the honey. Will the light go on when they learn that bees make honey from the flowers on the plants they grew?

Chris Walton built this giant mason bee house for a Fourth of July float. And here’s the real thing on my shed.

The teachers asked the kids what they like best about gardening class. Their responses?

“Saying hi to Miss Marty” and “planting everything I like to plant.” – Jude 

“I like to dig.” – Aidan 

“I roll and break the potatoes” and “I learned about planting.” -Rylee 

“I like planting” and I learned about “planting food.” – Davin 

“Toys.” – Dean 

“Planting.” – Clover

Shannon weighed in: “We have all gained much needed understanding of plants and gardens, but even more so we have enjoyed each other’s company while laughing, playing, running and exploring freely.  The experiences we have had together will be cherished and grow with us forever.”

Erika agrees: “What an amazing opportunity for our young class to learn about growing food, tending to the earth, accomplishing tasks alongside friends, and providing food for those in need.”

I’m glad Bloom has a summer session because so much of what we planted is starting to produce. We checked on the potatoes and found a nice-sized one already, and we’ve picked the first raspberries.

The kids will be champion blueberry pickers soon. The green beans are coming on and the tomato plants have tiny fruit on them. We have so much to look forward to. Truly, every moment in the garden with these littlest gardeners is pure joy.

The lettuce eaters. 

— Story by Marty Ronish. Most of the photos by Chris Walton; remainder by Erika Hill, Shannon Clarke and Marty Ronish

  1. Oh This was such a fun story to read. These kids are adorable and the ideas and knowledge they are learning is priceless. What a great place this is. Is it in the Bowl of Edmonds? We should have these types of Pre School like Bloom all over Edmonds. It is amazing how much and how different the things they are learning are. Instant gratification some say has caused some problems with older youth and adults and this is a real good way to get back to being outside, not on a computer or a screen. Getting dirty. I love those big juicy worms myself. This story Marty makes one want to come and play and help. I loved this. Let’s have more from you and the children in the garden. Thank you.

  2. Marty, what an absolutely delightful story. Thank you for taking those mini gardeners and showing them where some of their foods come from. And, lucky you to have all those colorful rocks decorating your garden!

    1. Marty,
      You are a hero! I love what you are doing. They are learning art, science and health perks as well as building community. Such a rich program and right next door!
      Val Taylor

  3. I enjoyed the story, the pictures and wish I was in ur neighborhood – Mr Rogers would love what u all do.

  4. What a wonderfully written story, and so refreshing! A delightful read this morning. Beautiful pictures too! So many valuable lessons for the little ones in this project.

    Thank you!

  5. What a delightful story and photos.

    Did Miss Marti have a career as a teacher, or is she just naturally incredible with little children.

    Thank you for this story.

  6. Great fun read and great break from the downer politics of our time. Good to know there are some people left in the world who enjoy simple things and things in life that are really important to know and to pass on. It isn’t just gardening being taught here – it’s some useful, priceless life long values too! We can’t get enough of that.

  7. Marty,
    I just loved reading this. You are a treasure to us in Edmonds. And those little ones and their teachers, kudos to ALL of you. Thank you. So refreshing and uplifting. Goodness, we sure need it!!

  8. Marty, I always love your writing, and this story is especially delightful! Those lucky littles who get to learn from you!

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