Reflections of a Perfectionist Gardener

perfectionist gardener

I must begin this post with a confession: I am a perfectionist, and I have been my entire life. It can be very helpful. It keeps me organized, makes me ambitious and conscientious, and helps drives me toward success in a lot of ways. However, it often holds me back from just doing things – from diving in before I feel completely ready. It also causes me a lot of unnecessary stress and anxiety.

Gardening, on the other hand, is NEVER perfect. In fact, it’s often quite messy (dirty even), and that has taught me a lot about myself and how I want to live my life.

Here are some of my reflections as a perfectionist gardener:

Kristen’s reaction when she found out the deer ate all her beets.

It’s never perfect. You can spend all winter planning your perfect garden. You can map out what you will plant, where it will go, and all of your succession plantings for the entire summer, but it won’t turn out that way. Your row of carrots won’t be straight, things won’t fit how you expected, and deer will eat your beets and you’ll need to plant something new in that space. Gardening has helped me learn to go with the flow and bring some more flexibility into my life.

You need to start before you’re ready. I wanted to garden for years but kept putting it off because I didn’t feel ready. I didn’t have time. I didn’t have space. I didn’t know how to start. Finally, last summer, in the midst of planning my wedding and a busy travel schedule, I realized that starting and trying was better than not doing it at all. Was it messy? Yes. Was it stressful at times? Yes. Did deer eat my beets? Yes. What is worth it? Absolutely. Now is always better than “some day.”

Failure is, and always will be, a part of the process. You plant things too close together, seeds don’t sprout, plants get diseases, deer eat your beets (can you tell I’m feeling a little bitter?), and sometimes you are the only person in Vermont to not harvest a single zucchini all summer. You make changes and get better next year. Then you have new problems to solve!

Imperfection is BEAUTIFUL! An estimated six billion pounds of produce is wasted every year, and much of that is due to aesthetics. Over the last half-century, we have come to expect our produce to look like it has come out of a machine, rather than grown in the ground. We expect it to be symmetrical, clean, and one solid color. Gardening, especially with organic methods, teaches you that just like people, fruits and vegetables come in all shapes, sizes, and colors – and that diversity is beautiful! Real food (and real people) are not perfect. Thank gourd for that!

The lessons we can teach kids (and ourselves) in the garden go far beyond nutrition and traditional school subjects. Let’s remember to celebrate our imperfections.

My Kids Aren’t In the Garden

The other day, my colleague Sarah asked how my kids were liking gardening this summer. Eek. Confession time: I haven’t taken them to our community garden plot much at all this summer.

I have a huge list of reasons: it’s been boiling hot (for Vermont), I’ve been enjoying the peaceful alone time, and since I always feel “behind” on gardening, I feel like I don’t have the extra time to take them along. Oh, and maybe the most important reason: crows have been eating our strawberries! Wildlife is eating my best garden bribes!

They have been eating produce from our plot. I have been able to bring home some kale, and they claim that our garden kale is the best on planet Earth. One kid was so excited about the first garden snow pea she saved it to show her friends at art camp.

They have been helping garden at home a bit. We have a few low-to-no maintenance flower beds that they like to help water. They both help manage the weeds. They monitor our rudbeckia for aphids. (None yet!) They let us know the score of the lilies vs. lily leaf beetles matchup. (Honestly, it’s kind of a tie game at this point.) They LOVE to help fill up our Oya.

I’m resolving (publicly!) to do better. Maybe now that we’re moving into harvest season it will be a little easier to bring them to our plot. As I mentioned, our peas have finally come in, so while the strawberries recover under some bird netting, I have some other snackable bribes. And the zinnias are almost blooming, and who doesn’t love to bring home flowers?!

I’m not going to force it, though. I’ll invite them to come (perhaps with a little bribery), and offer a wagon ride. But if it becomes a too-hot, too-buggy, “stop touching the neighbor’s tomatoes!” chore, then I’m ok just bringing home the fresh foods for them to snack on in the front yard and at the dinner table.

Digging Into Soil

A couple of years ago, I shared my top tips for school gardens and one of them was “Invest in Your Soil." This was a lesson I learned through personal experience as the original soil placed in our raised bed gardens was of poor quality and had to be completely replaced the following season. Take my word for it, there is nothing like hauling 6 cubic yards of soil out of the tall raised beds and then shoveling 6 yards of soil back into the beds in the 90+ degree Texas August weather (after it had just been done in the spring less than 6 months before) to really drive home a point. 

This experience was what I would call an “Aha” moment. I sat through the required soil courses in college and over the years I have attended a wide selection of seminars on soil preparation and composting (and even taught a few myself). I have conducted soil tests both on my home and school garden soil and used the results to develop a best practices management plan. I ‘knew’ all the soil basics, but it was the sweat of the work (including the difficulty of finding and motivating volunteers) and then observing the difference between how our garden grew in the before and after soil that made the importance of soil real to me. We talk about how valuable experiential learning is for kids – never forget that it is just as powerful for adults too! 

My new enthusiasm for soil was further enriched by reading the book Teaming with Microbes by Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis.  The authors magically explain a very complex topic - how both organic and inorganic matter interact in the soil – in easily to understand terms. I LOVE this book! Read it now!

Recognizing that garden programs offer unique opportunities for hands-on soil education, a little over a year ago, KidsGardening began collaborating with Dr. Steve Apefelbaum and Susan Lehnhart of Applied Ecological Services and The Lower Sugar River Watershed Association to develop a set of lesson plans for high school educators. The result of this work is Digging into Soil: A Garden Practicum.

Digging into Soil includes a set of 10 lessons linked to Next Generation Science Standards that are designed to not only teach students about soil basics, but also to help them understand the important role our soil and soil life plays in our ecosystem and why we must work harder to protect it.  Incorporating hands-on activities and extensive projects linked to current events, just like my “Aha” moment, the goal of this Guide is to make soil real to participating students. The lessons are flexible enough that they could be implemented with or without a garden program, but being able to see the principles presented play out first hand in the garden is extremely beneficial. Students’ sense of ownership and pride in their garden adds to the motivation to learn about soil health. We focused on keeping all activities and experiences hands-on, inquiry-based and practical.

For more detailed information about the lessons including how they are linked to Next Generation Science Standards Performance Expectations and to download a copy, please visit

Maintaining Youth Engagement in the Garden All Summer Long

youth engagement in the garden all summer

As many of my loyal blog readers will know, I spend half of each week with the Burlington School District as a Garden Education Coordinator. And oddly enough, when it comes to my work with the district, my busiest time of year is often the summer. This somewhat paradoxical reality got me thinking about all the ways I’ve connected with youth in the garden during the summer, something that I know many school programs struggle with. So I thought I’d compile a list of the strategies I’ve used, entities I’ve partnered with, and programs I’ve facilitated to keep youth engaged in the garden all summer long.

  1. Support Summer Schools and Summer Feeding Sites: Here in Burlington a handful of our schools stay active for at least part, if not most, of the summer. Whether they be students attending summer school or youth dropping by for the free meals offered by the Burlington School Food Project, there are a lot of kids passing through school even though it’s no longer the academic year. Many of the teachers I work with during the school year lead summer school classes and are occasionally looking for fun outdoor activities to do with their students. Teachers will sometimes ask for advice: What work would be most helpful for us to do this week? What’s ready to harvest that I could eat with my students? Others might request more hands on support: I saw you working in the garden yesterday, next time you’re here would you be willing to lead a short gardening activity with my class?
  2. Summer (Garden) Camps: I used to help run an afterschool program that morphed into a 5 day-a-week camp during the summer months. As someone who happened to be passionate about connecting kids to the garden, I spearheaded staff efforts to connect our campers to this largely volunteer-managed space. At the end of the school year, just as we began planning summer camp, I met with the individual who ran the garden to get the lay of the land and to learn how we could support and interact with the growing space over the summer. With her guidance we were able to create a plan that balanced student interest and access with the realities of summer garden maintenance. Some weeks counselors would facilitate daily structured garden-based activities (ex: paper pot making, seed starting, weeding parties etc.), other weeks we’d just take excited students to the garden during recess or free choice time to see if there was anything to harvest, water or weed.
  3. Community Center Connections: One of our middle school sites houses summer camp programming that is administered and facilitated by the community center next door. For the past three years I’ve partnered with the center’s cooking class to lead guest cooking activities and get students out into our large production garden. The relationship partly arose out of miscommunications; unbeknownst to us camp was facilitating garden specific programming in our space, with staff attempting to plant in beds we had future plans for and harvesting food intended for our Fork in the Road food truck. After a conversation with the camp director to set up respectful expectations around garden use, we set out on a new path of increased communication and collaboration. Ever since then, I’ve coordinated with the individual running the cooking class to work with their students once or twice a week while camp is in session, we’re able to tackle necessary garden projects that are simultaneously fun for campers.
  4. Paid Positions for Youth: Each summer Burlington School Food Project’s Fork in the Road food truck employs approximately eight Burlington High School Students for ten weeks. Students earn wages while prepping complex meals, working, vending, and catering events throughout our community, and participating in garden shifts. During these weekly garden shifts, students weed, water, plant, and harvest produce from our two large production gardens. For much of the summer they are the primary caretakers of the gardens, making their time spent in these spaces meaningful not just in a practical sense--each shift serves as a way to deepen their relationship with the food growing there as they nurture tomatoes, peppers, eggplants and more from seedlings to mature plants that they will then pick, prepare and then serve on the food truck. Our youth staff are paid through the food service department, which undeniably presents some challenges each year, but there are alternative ways to providing wages to youth participating in a work-and-learn program like ours; for a great example take a look at this old fundraising page for Medomak Valley High School’s Heirloom Seed Project Teen Agriculture Crew.