Learning in the Garden: Interview with Mary Riddle

Learning in the Garden: Interview with Mary Riddle

Spring is here! In my household, we’ve spent the past few weeks working hard to set up a garden. We’ve planted fruit trees and shade trees and dug beds for herbs and vegetables.

Read to the end of the post for a free printable Garden Time vocabulary aid.

When I was a girl growing up with undiagnosed autism, the garden was my refuge. I learned a lot of life and relationship skills because of my desire to grow things. I would find old women in their garden beds and ask them to help me figure out the difference between miracles and weeds.

My friend Stepheny Houghtlin introduced me to the idea of “the long conversation that is English gardening.” While I garden in a subtropical climate instead of a mild one, I have not let go of the thought of gardening as a long conversation across time and space. That idea – of growing things and learning to speak at the same time – has inspired me to engage my children in gardening.

As I was working out my ideas for our garden as a learning environment, I had the joy of being introduced to Mary Riddle, whose expertise in sustainable gardening and education caught my attention right away. (Seriously, go read about her and check out her thoughtful, beautiful blog.) Mary agreed to carry on that long conversation about gardening with me. We talked about best practices in learning in the garden. I hope you enjoy listening to her wise advice as much as I have!

Mary, welcome to my site. I told you about how we’re trying to grow plants that suit our environment and will add beauty and bring fruit to our yard. I love the idea of a garden that can grow over time and that will help feed us, too. Tell us some of your background with sustainable gardening.

I’ve worked in farming and agricultural education for over ten years. I figured out in high school that I wanted to either be a teacher or a farmer, but it wasn’t until after I graduated from college that I figured out that I could combine those passions. I’ve managed mid-sized farms, helped homeowners and businesses install and maintain their own gardens, and consulted with educational programs to create top-notch sustainable agriculture components to their curriculum. The best part of what I’ve gotten to do is to help kids fall in love with being outside by showing them what they can do in a garden.

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Help kids fall in love with being outside.

You work in a school for girls that focuses on teaching in the garden. Can you share how this works practically? Are there lessons outside year-round?

Mary Riddle quotation: A garden can teach you anything.At Hutchison School, I work with teachers in all grades, from our two year old program all the way through high school, on how to use the garden to help their classroom instruction. My mantra is “a garden can teach you anything.”

We do have lessons outside year-round, but they don’t solely focus on the life science side of a garden. We use the school farm to teach history, world languages, civics, math, and more. It works so well, because gardening isn’t a separate thing that they have to teach, but it’s a lens through which they can examine the rest of the world. 

What are some best practices you might share about learning in a garden?

I always tell people to aim small, then succeed. Building up slowly is good. I see parents and schools sometimes undertake ambitious gardening plans, only to get overwhelmed a few months in. A few pots of tomatoes on your patio is a good place to start. Add one or two new things every season.
I also believe that raised bed or container gardens are the best way to go when working with kids. Creating manageable sizes and spaces for weeding and tending helps to ensure success.
Summer’s garden features lots of fruit plants and trees, like this plum tree that her son loves.

Amen to that! We started our garden with very low-maintenance fruit trees in part to encourage the children when they see the fruit. We also have a big melon patch, because there’s nothing like fresh melons in the summer for making the garden feel like a reward. As you know, my children are autistic. Have you worked with autistic children before? If so, what has been the effect of garden-centered education?


I have worked with autistic children, though not extensively, but I have found the sensory experiences of gardening to be therapeutic for them. I’ve helped parents of autistic kids select especially fun sensory plants to grow with their kids: things with interesting scents, textures, and flavors. I like growing perennials like comfrey, because they’re so soft, or annuals like “sensitive plant,” which will close up when you touch it.

We actually have sensitive plant growing wild in our yard! I love teh idea of adding comfrey. We have sage and other herbs because of their strong fragrances.

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Creating emotional connections with food.

Speaking of herbs and strong fragrances: Picky eaters. I have read a lot about how picky eaters will often be more willing to try foods that they grow. Does that pattern hold true?

YES! That is one of the most gratifying parts of my job. Every week, girls from Hutchison School will help me harvest a vegetable to deliver to our dining hall, where it is turned into a new dish for them to try. I can’t tell you how many times parents have come up to me and said something like, “My daughter won’t touch anything green, but because she tried it here, she’ll now eat kale.” I know this isn’t true for every child with every vegetable, but creating emotional connections to their food through growing, harvesting, and preparing makes them far more likely to try it. We create as many opportunities for low-pressure tries as we can. 

I love the idea of creating opportunities for low-pressure tries. The pressure is so overwhelming to my children, too. What would you say is your favorite insight from learning in the garden?

I always like to remind kids and adults alike that failing is a valuable way to learn. Nobody has a “green thumb” or a “black thumb.” We all accidentally kill plants, but curious learners will try to figure out why, learn from those experiences, and try again. That’s the fun and intrigue in gardening. A while back, I had a group of 5th graders working on a project that wasn’t going terribly well. One of the girls said, “Oh no, we’ve failed!” Another girl in the group piped up, “We didn’t fail. We found a new way that this doesn’t work!” That was probably one of my proudest teaching moments of all time, because that’s one of the most valuable lessons that a garden can teach.

Thank you so much for joining me, Mary!

Readers, why not start your garden this spring with this easy to grow Easter grass project?

Or use this free Garden Time vocabulary printable to help your children enjoy your garden this year.  Print the image below or download the PDF version here: garden time

garden time


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