Learning in the Garden: Interview with Mary Riddle
Posted on March 20, 2019
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.
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?
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.”
What are some best practices you might share about learning in a garden?
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.
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?
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?
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