The animated fifth grader, laughing, dragged me toward the wire-framed bin at the edge of the woods where we compost weeds and spent plants. “Look,” she giggled, “we have compost jumpers.” Sure enough, the bin was almost full of pea vines and gone-to-seed lettuce and, on top of that, three bouncing little kids. — –the compost jumpers.
This was a family gardening evening. One evening each summer week families from one or two classes at our school gather to share a potluck meal and work together in the garden. On this pleasant July evening, a team of parents along with their children had cleared spent plants from three beds in the hoop house resulting in heaps of green matter that had been hauled to the bin in carts. The giggling children explained that the bin had filled quickly and they had needed to make space for more. That’s when the fifth grader had lifted the younger kids into the bin where they proceeded to jump, becoming small, human, giggling waste compactors.
I had missed the invention of the new garden chore, forever to be termed “compost jumping,” because I had been working with another team transplanting leeks. We use the dibble system in which the transplants are slipped carefully into a cylindrical hole (made by a dibble or in our case, a piece of bamboo) that is slowly filled as rain and sprinkler water erodes the hole. Adults had prepared the beds and poked holes into the spongy soil. It was five year olds who carefully popped the leeks into their burrows and who had the idea to eat the top trimmings that were removed before planting.
I should know by now that children find their own fun when gardening, but generally, I am always surprised when I see them invent tasks such as compost jumping and leek top nibbling. At the end of each gardening class and each family gardening session we gather for a conversation and a song. I ask participants to tell us what they enjoyed, observed or accomplished. Young children most often speak about enjoyment rather than observation or accomplishment. I have been surprised to learn that some children love weeding because they like to look at the roots and that that teams of kids clearing sods have a jolly good time smashing the clods against a wire frame to separate the soil from the green matter.
My favorite memory of a child finding satisfaction in a gardening task involved a third grade boy who tended to avoid work. He would begin a job and then wander over to joke around with his buddies—not the sort of enjoyment I had in mind! One day we had a smelly job that I was reluctant to offer to children. I mentioned that the straw meant for mulch had gone moldy, but needed to be spread between the rows and that I would do that after class. But, to my amazement, my reluctant worker offered to spread the straw. And, spread it he did, with no side trips to regale his friends! During our closing conversation, I asked him the standard question—would he like to tell us what he observed, accomplished or enjoyed?
“Well”, he said. “I spread the straw and it was really gross.” Then he smirked and added, “but it was kind of fun.”