How does your garden grow, kids?

Writer urges the use of plants as teaching tool

March 17, 2004|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,SUN STAFF

THURMONT - How much does Lynne Cherry long for spring? Count the ways.

She's defrosted the last sauce from tomatoes she'd grown; her pesto is long gone. The sight of bare stalks that once bore apples, plums, pears in her backyard garden is only too familiar. Something's got to give.

Up here in the Catoctin Mountains, at some 1,800 feet, spring tends to dawdle before settling in, softening ground, stirring things up. First goes the hard snow surface, crunchy as Doritos beneath Cherry's boots, then the few inches of snow beneath, seeping into the earth or rushing into mountain streams and on toward the Potomac River.

It's all part of physical and spiritual sustenance for Cherry, an accomplished children's book writer/illustrator and grow-your-own-food advocate.

She travels a bit for her work, but returns always for inspiration to these fundamental things. The soil enriched by an abundant compost heap, food raised by hand and without the benefit of chemicals, birds in abundance. Minus lions and lambs, the whole Peaceable Kingdom.

Never mind how many growing seasons Cherry has seen, as she prefers not to disclose vital statistics. Suffice to say that at middle age, she has yet to lose a sense of wonder at the emergence of asparagus, eggplant, zucchini, tomatoes, raspberries and on and on.

Her enthusiasm is evident as she picks up a copy of her most recent book, How Groundhog's Garden Grew (Blue Sky Press, 2003, $15.95), and talks about an illustration showing how a vegetable grows stage by stage.

She's sitting on her living-room couch, which is covered in a throw blanket of vaguely Native American design. This suits the decorative motif, such as it is. The log house is done in what one might call bohemian rustic. Simple wooden furniture, rugs in earthy colors, just enough clutter to be comfortable. On one wall hangs a caribou antler.

"This is like magic, to watch this," says Cherry, pointing to a scene illustrated in the book where the protagonist, Little Groundhog, discovers how vines and other food-bearing plants bear fruit. He sees how a nascent vegetable appears where a flower has given way. Little Groundhog - in the book's narrative arc he evolves under the tutelage of a squirrel from garden ravager to cultivator - witnesses this with evident delight.

In his sense of discovery, Little Groundhog might stand in for the schoolchildren who are the object of much of Cherry's grow-your-own crusade. She has visited the kids in many elementary-school classrooms only to find that the food they eat is about as mysterious to them as the planet Mars.

"They had no idea where their food came from," says Cherry. She would tell them about her garden up in the Catoctin Mountains, and "they would ask me if I grew bananas."

For the record, she grows a number of fruits, vegetables and herbs, but no bananas. Cherry figures if schoolchildren worked in gardens themselves, they might begin to understand why.

That would be the least of the sales pitch she makes for school gardens. Her own enthusiasm, she says, is backed up by studies that have claimed to show the value of gardens as a teaching tool. Studies conducted in several states since the mid-1980s support gardens as a way of improving student test scores, behavior, sense of responsibility, awareness of healthy eating habits and environmental stewardship.

There's something about the practicality of lessons in the garden, says Cherry. Scientific principles are one thing on the page, she says, another thing when they're being realized in things you can feel, see, touch, smell and taste.

"A lot of kids are more tactile learners," says Cherry. "If you're using your senses, you're using these other pathways."

For a few years now, Cherry has been working with Cornell University's national Kids Growing Food program, which encourages schools to develop their own gardens. Last month, she spoke to a group of teachers in Washington representing 10 schools that are working on student-garden plans. In Maryland, the White Oak School in Baltimore County and St. Margaret's Elementary School in Bel Air are among schools that have worked with Cornell, although Cherry herself has not been directly involved in those school gardens.

"She's got this infectious passion," says Margaret A. Barker, coordinator of the Kids Growing Food program, who was there for Cherry's talk at the University of the District of Columbia.

The conviction has helped sustain her through 30 children's books, many of which deal with animals and the environment. The Great Kapok Tree, her biggest seller, focused on the destruction of the rain forest. A River Ran Wild looked at the pollution and restoration of the Nashua River in New England. She has also published The Life of a Wood Thrush, Where Butterflies Grow and The Armadillo From Amarillo.

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