Learning from Nature: Ecological Garden

Artichokes at the Ecological Garden. Image by Kristina Simonaityte

Artichokes at the Ecological Garden. Image by Kristina Simonaityte

Must we always teach our children with books? Let them look at the stars and the mountains above. Let them look at the waters and the trees and flowers on Earth. Then they will begin to think, and to think is the beginning of a real education. 
— David Polis

With more than half of the world’s population living in the cities, it’s no wonder that people are becoming more and more detached from Nature. We get our food from grocery stores, processed and wrapped in plastic, barely resembling animals it came from. Fruits and vegetables are smell-less, sprayed with who-knows-what, and often better traveled than us. Many cities lack green spaces or distribution of these spaces is unequal, depriving some communities (usually the most vulnerable) of the green amenities and their benefits. Public’s interest in environmental issues is lowest in 20 years, despite the overwhelming evidence of rapidly changing climate and accelerating loss of biodiversity; a small experiment on Facebook showed that my non-ecologists friends have little interest in things that I do and care about. I and my fellow EcoPosters spend so much time with and among other environmentally-minded people that it is easy to forget that others might not share the same passion and worry for natural world.

I expect a lot from President Obama’s second term; so far the rhetoric of the White House makes me feel optimistic about the United States finally taking the lead in addressing climate change and associated problems. However, while politicians world over are trying to agree on taking some (any) actions, it is the youngest generations that we should be concerned about. Concrete and asphalt playgrounds – that’s what most children find when (if) they go outside, and they often don’t know how to behave in nature or treat animals. But these are the minds that will have to deal with even bigger environmental problems that we have today. Therefore, exposing them to the natural world and its workings would immensely benefit both these kids and the wider society.

Tour at the Ecological Garden. Image by John Stumbos/UC Davis

Tour at the Ecological Garden. Image by John Stumbos/UC Davis

In the Editors section I mention that I have never thought of becoming an ecologist. I grew up in a city and was never a very outdoorsy child. I admire those people who had fascination with natural world since early days, who collected critters and build herbaria. None of my schools had even a crude biology lab. My first lab at university (ODL!) was my first biology lab ever! In middle school I didn’t like classes on ecology at all (it was all about food webs and I couldn’t understand anything). In high school I dropped biology when I had a chance. However, my most vivid memories from kindergarten are those of us going to the nearby woodland and observing ant nests and collecting leaves. While I’ve never milked a cow or raised a toad, I feel that I was exposed to nature a lot, both through my formal education, my family as well as my country’s culture.

Realising how important environmental education is in the past four years I worked a lot with kids, through different volunteering opportunities. And every time I would be pleasantly surprised how much those kids know, how curious they are and willing to learn more. Last year while on exchange at the University of California, Davis I interned at the UCD Ecological Garden, and the following are my recollections of that experience.

Medicinal plants bed in the Ecological Garden. Image by Kristina Simonaityte

Medicinal plants bed in the Ecological Garden. Image by Kristina Simonaityte.

Davis is located in the Central Valley of California, the state’s major agricultural area. UC Davis has a long agricultural history, and being the largest campus in the UC system it has great areas dedicated to farming and agricultural sciences. Closest to the campus’ core area is so-called Student Farm, where various undergraduate courses are taught, while its produce is sold to the community through “veg box” scheme. Adjacent to the Student Farm is UCD Ecological Garden, one of my favourite areas in the whole of campus. Ecological Garden is exactly what it says on the tin. They use only compost as fertilizer made right there in the garden from garden’s waste, while water use is carefully moderated. There are fruit trees and berry-bearing shrubs; various vegetables and medicinal plants; flowers planted specifically to attract pollinators; native herbaceous and woody plants to increase biodiversity.

Ecological Garden in Winter. Image by Kristina Simonaityte

Ecological Garden in Winter. Image by Kristina Simonaityte

For two quarters (about 6 months), I was one of the student interns of ‘Kids in the Garden’ programme. We spent Winter Quarter training, learning both about the garden, its inhabitants and ecological processes, as well as environmental education and how to work with children of different ages. We also got to spent time working in the Garden: planting, weeding, mulching. In Spring Quarter every week we welcomed groups of children from local schools (Kindergarten to 3rd grade) for 2-hour tours of the Garden, showing them around the garden and leading various activities.

Usually there would be four stations (crafts, food etc.) plus the tour of Student Farm. We would make herb bouquets and flower presses (kids usually go out to pick one herb or flower, and we would provide the rest); we would play scavenger hunt and games called “Mystery Dirt”, “Photosynthetic Phun”, “Plant Part Factory” and others. Some of my favourite activities were the food ones: we usually would pick and chop vegetables in advance and would then let the kids to collect one or two things from the garden. They were eating things that I myself have never tried before, which included flowers of some plants (e.g. calendula) or this root vegetable called kohlrabi, which was the best thing ever! I was impressed that most of the kids ended up eating the salads that they made themselves, even though it wasn’t easy to get them to try the less usual things. Overall kids were eager and participating; they would ask good questions and loved when we were quizzing them. Also there were chickens kept in the garden and, probably unsurprisingly, visiting them usually was the most exciting activity.

Boysenberry. Image by Kristina Simonaityte

Boysenberry. Image by Kristina Simonaityte

I enjoyed my work in the Garden very much, Spring Quarter especially, when we got to interact with kids while being outdoors surrounded by these amazing smells, colours and sounds. Just like those kids, I was learning too: about California’s native plants and their properties and plant-animal associations; how an artichoke, pomegranate, persimmon fruits grow and mature; how blackberry and raspberry hybrid tastes like; how to overcome my unreasonable fears of chickens and speaking to kids in English. But sometimes it would be the simplest things that would get me: one of the mornings I spent half an hour up in the tree by myself picking cherries.

Garden might not be a natural system as we understand it, but it is still an ecosystem, with plants and animals and other organisms and energy and matter fluxes. It teaches kids a lot of different things from importance of local and seasonal food to role of pollinators to basics of soil science. It teaches appreciation of the live things: we had a huge fig tree that was knocked down by a storm and really needed some hugs; also one of the activities involved handling live compost worms (no squishing!) If nothing else, at least  after visiting the Garden these kids will never confuse their tomatoes and potatoes. And that’s a start.


4 responses to “Learning from Nature: Ecological Garden

  1. dear Kristina
    I learn a lot from your activities and writing and your opinion about nature. I am Daawia from Indonesia, I live in Papua province that still surrounded by forest. This province is very rich in term of biodiversity and I am interested to learn about papua butterflies. I have a planing to establish a butterfly garden and let the students study many aspects of butterfly on it and nature in general. May be I can learn from you how to involve children and educate them directly to nature. I really love nature and i want to protect them.


  2. Pingback: Urban gardening: the future of food | EcoPost·

  3. I learned about nature as a kid through my uncle’s backyard garden. Interaction with living things in an outdoor unstructured environment, whether it’s in a garden or the woods, does wonders.


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