The goal of the community gardener interviews is to facilitate an inter-generational transfer of knowledge in a natural and highly interactive setting. Community gardens represent one of the best possible classrooms in an urban environment, and their tenders are folks who are eager to answer questions and tell stories.
Who better to teach young people how to grow vegetables than the folks who choose to participate in this activity during their free time? Community gardeners are authentic educators and possess a unique gift to engage their audience in the explanation of their activities.
The community garden is a multidisciplinary classroom. Endless are the possibilities when thinking about educational opportunities that can take place here. The interview, which reinforces writing skills and cultural studies, is a good place to start. Then measure and map all the plots to reinforce math skills. Take a map of the world and put a pin in each place a gardener was born (or ancestors) to engage in geography and history.
For the community garden interview, documentation is the main activity. At the minimum you need a notebook and pencil to take notes during the exploration. We like to use clipboards and unlined paper, or graph paper if mapping and sketching.
The ideal is to integrate technology into the process. This means a still camera, video camera, and audio recorder (or a smart phone).
Group Size (young people)
This depends on the size of the community garden. When we explored the Eastwick Community Garden in Philadelphia (8 acres, 100+ plots), there were up to 50 young people at a time, broken up into smaller groups of 4 or 5. But for a smaller garden, with maybe between 20-30 plots, 15-20 young people would be a better fit. As groups are exploring, it’s best if they aren’t regularly running into their peers.
Group Size (older folks)
A 1:5 ratio of adult chaperones (not the community gardeners) to young is ideal, so each small group has an as a resource. Over time when students become more comfortable with the garden-based learning, and trusting relationships are formed between students and gardeners, chaperones aren’t as necessary, although students should always work in groups. Under no circumstance should a student be alone when interviewing a gardener or exploring a community garden.
The adult chaperone’s job is to stand back and offer guidance and encouragement to fuel the students exploration. Of course it’s also the adult’s responsibility to ensure each member of the group has the tools and instruction needed to fill his/her role, and that all are safe and respectful.
First the community garden needs to be identified and contacted. This is a two-way street, the school can seek out the community garden or the gardeners can seek out the school. For the former, most cities have mapped their community gardens online (www.groundedinphilly.org), so a short google search should reveal the nearest garden to any school or community center. To make first contact, try to visit the garden during the growing season (April-Nov in most climates) on a weekend- this tends to be the busiest time for garden activity. Introduce yourself to any gardener you see, and explain your intention of connecting young people interested in learning about how to grow their own food to the folks in the community who are experts in this endeavor. Ask if there’s a gardener who they’d recommend we contact about moving this forward (most community gardens have some type of leadership structure).
It’s the adults responsibility to ensure the safety of the young people during the community garden explorations. For the community gardeners, this means being aware of when the kids are coming, and making sure any dangerous tools are put away. For those adults accompanying the kids, this means establishing and reinforcing expectations of behavior such as
- walking softly (no running)
- leaving only footsteps (no disturbing the environment)
- graciousness (handshake introductions, eye contact, please/thank you)
- teamwork (no wandering off)
As always, clarity of roles and responsibilities is key for the community garden exploration. For a group of 5 young people, possible roles include:
- interviewers (2) – lead conversations with community gardeners
- producer (1) – lead communication between interviewers and documentarians to ensure material is comprehensively documented
- documentarians (2)- lead documentation of interviews with still photography, video, voice recording, sketching, etc
The topics covered during each interview is at the discretion of the group- there’s tons that can be discussed beyond the basic who, what, where, when, why. We ask about favorite recipes, about how garden knowledge is passed down, and about specific garden practices like composting and seed saving. No matter what the focus, the gardeners are repositories of wisdom and generous informants.
How this information is documented and shared is also at the discretion of the group. We’ve written blogs, newsletters, garden manuals, and cookbooks. No matter the final deliverable, the process of production is where the learning happens.