Wednesday, February 24, 2010

For the Love of Dirt

People collect lots of things... postcards, vinyl records, coffee mugs, refrigerator magnets, old toys. I collect dirt. Friends, family and students have contributed to my collection over the years, bagging samples of earth from as far and wide as the base of the Parthenon in Greece, the volcanic beaches of Hawaii, the grave of Jim Morrison in Paris, and a backyard in Moscow. I began this endeavor before increased security at airports made it difficult to carry unusual souvenirs in one's luggage. I persist for the same reasons most people advance their collections, because they prize its nostalgic significance and sensorial appeal.

One of the things I most look forward to this Spring is the opportunity for my son to play outside in the dirt and get downright grubby. Children are fascinated with dirt and sand because of it's tactile quality and unlimited possibilities for play. They can dig in it, build with it, draw in it, manipulate it, drive vehicles over it, even swallow the occasional handful with out much adverse effect. It's potential for imaginary play is limitless... aspiring archeologists sift for dinosaur bones, make-believe princes and princesses build sandcastles and moats, wanna-be artists create Earthworks, hopeful monster truck racers navigate dirt tracks and ramps, and future chefs just add water to create soup and mud pies.

My mother (who was a stay-at-home-Mom and member of the local chapter of a Garden Club) and father (who was handy with tools and had a DIY approach to domestic life) transformed a patchy backyard landscape into a garden playground when my sister and I were young. We tended a vegetable garden, composted, stocked a man-made pond with koi fish, filled vases in our home with freshly cut flowers and, of course, scrubbed plenty of soil out from under our fingernails at bath time. This period in our lives seemed magical to me, and artist-gardener Tasha Tudor's watercolor illustrations for Frances Hodgson Burnett's enchanting story The Secret Garden enriched my appreciation of it. When my mother returned to work full-time, my sister and I joined the new generation of latch-key kids. Mom suddenly had less time for gardening, and she soon replaced many of her houseplants with artificial flower arrangements and scaled her vegetable garden to a few tomato and strawberry plants. I dolefully relayed this experience to a friend and professor of feminist literature recently who reminded me that child rearing has been likened to tending a garden. I guess at this point in my life, my mother was ready to let her well-tended roses grow a little wild.

I still miss our family garden and yearn for my own little patch in the city, especially when I can now envision my son digging up rocks in search of rolly pollies by my side. Lamentably, our community garden at Walter Pierce Community Park was closed for "erosion control engineering work" and due to concerns regarding the tilling and watering of park land that was a 19th century Quaker burial ground and African American cemetery. A Howard University professor is currently conducting a non-invasive archeological survey of the park. Friends of Walter Pierce Park, a non-profit neighborhood organization, and the DC Department of Parks and Recreation hope to eventually honor the history of the park with a commemorative garden.

Following the garden's closure, I contacted the group responsible for assigning public plots (via a lottery system) in our neighboring community only to be told that I lived on the "wrong side" of 18th Street, NW, and was ineligible to apply. Some reactive urban gardeners have resorted to Guerrilla Gardening in response to the scarcity of public space sanctioned for growing things. These Eco warriors stealthily beautify cities under cover of night by using "green grenades" to plant hearty, self-cultivating plant species in neglected parkways between streets and sidewalks and in abandoned lots. Unfortunately, "seed bombers" may be slapped with a hefty fine if caught although their illicit sowing of seeds improves the look of the neighborhoods.

Ill-prepared to pay steep penalties to the District for the pleasure of cooking with some fresh organic herbs, I keep searching for alternatives. In the meantime, a little basil plant is thriving in my son's bedroom window, and AS is getting the feel for dirt by digging in pots of my houseplants., a website of the non-profit National Gardening Association, provides suggestions for beginning a window sill garden indoors from seeds, cuttings or plants. Parents who have neither the time nor space to start their own garden are encouraged to "adopt" a wild or public green space and visit it periodically with their children to study, photograph or draw, write poems and create leaf rubbings from the plants. The NGA promotes gardening "as a vehicle for encouraging children to make good food choices, augmenting classroom studies with experiential learning, building a love of nature, stimulating social interaction, facilitating cultural exchange, and more."

City Blossoms in Washington, DC began a Children's Community Garden project at Girard Playground supported by Columbia Heights Shaw Collaborative in participation with neighborhood schools and youth centers. Beginning in March, weather permitting, families are encouraged to stop by the Children's Community Garden during "Open Time" to participate in free impromptu workshops and help tend the garden. Open Time is on Tuesdays from 12-1 and Wednesdays from 4-6. City Blossoms' mission is to use "gardening to create environmental, nutritional, and cultural connections for children and youth", an effort that would make First Lady Michelle Obama proud. For more information about how the White House Kitchen Garden is feeding the homeless, go here. The Girard Playground project transformed an asphalt lot into a demonstration garden where volunteers lead hands-on workshops for local children. City Blossoms has facilitated other art and gardening projects to beautify areas surrounding Girard Playground and at several schools in Washington, DC.

The DC Department of Parks and Recreation also offers environmental programs and gardening workshops year-round for District residents of all ages at Twin Oaks Garden in Northwest and Lederer Environmental Education Center in Northeast. Residents may apply at either center for use of an existing DPR community garden plot during the growing season from May to end of August. Users pay a $30 fee annually. You may also participate in the DPR community gardens partnership program by adopting and managing an existing community garden or creating and adopting a new community garden. Visit the DPR website to learn more about these programs or to submit an application. Contact the DPR Camping and Environmental Education Division directly at (202) 671-0396.

As I discovered, there is plenty for would-be horticulturists to look forward to in Washington, DC, even before the first crocuses and daffodils appear in the Spring. Like the mother in Margaret Wise Brown's classic children's story The Runaway Bunny, if your little one likes to imagine himself as a hidden crocus in a garden, you can be the gardener and find him.


  1. Makes me look forward to Spring and all that tilling the soil brings! We'll be heading to Debaggio's Herbs as soon as it opens!

  2. Just the thought of all that Spring green helps keep you going through these last few weeks of winter, doesn't it?!

  3. I have been looking for a site or book that makes it easy to figure out which plants are toxic for children. Have you found anything like that?

  4. Great question, Denise! I've seen a number of lists on the web, but this one is pretty user friendly:
    It includes both toxic and nontoxic plants and what to do in the event children (or pets) ingest them. It also includes the phone number for the National Poison Center:(800) 222-1222



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