Thursday, April 21, 2011

My afternoon with the Satanic Boy Scouts

Last weekend, I met with troop 666 (along with another troop with a less memorable number) in a beautiful home where things appear plentiful, happy, and very NOT Satanic. Honestly, I had some mixed feelings going into this project of helping the boys earn their merit badge. As a master gardener (intern, officially), I want to spend my very limited time volunteering to improve the lives and environments of people who are much less fortunate. The idea of teaching already privileged children about gardening...well, it needed to be reconciled in my head. But the way I looked at it, gardening is something that should be for all people regardless of socio-economic status. I figure if there are people - any people - who want to learn about gardening and ask for my help, I should provide it if I can. To deny a group of people based on financial status would not be right. And sometimes, it's the children from the more privileged backgrounds that are not provided certain types of opportunities (I can say this because I was one of those children!).

It was a gorgeous Sunday afternoon. I asked the boys why they wanted to earn this badge and got some mixed answers: "I want to learn about gardening", "I need to earn more badges", "My mom made me come", "I had nothing else to do". Ha ha for honesty! I told the boys that I would provide information on everything they needed to earn the gardening merit badge but whispered that I had an ulterior motive - psst...I was really trying to create gardeners and on a future glorious Sunday like that day, I wanted them to think, "I want to go out and work in the garden", and not, "I want to work on another merit badge".

I was happy with the message I began with:
  • There are MANY methods for all the things I would show them. I would share conventional wisdom and also what has worked for me - and everything I would share would come from my perspective of organic gardening, but my way is only one of many ways.
  • No gardener would probably consider themselves "expert" because there are changes in the environment every year, there are gardening inventions every year, there are problems and new solutions every year, and gardeners are always learning and trying new things. This is part of the joy of gardening.

I had packets with information about: parts of a flower, photosynthesis, hardiness zones, seed-starting (indoors and directly outside), nutrition values of veggies and fruits - we also went through how each veggie should be started, soil preparation, container gardening, watering, seed germination, plant problems and diagnosis, IPM, garden pests and organic methods of control, hydroponics, vermiposting, composting, and water gardens. I actually spent an enormous amount of time preparing, organizing, copying, etc. I also brought lots of things to show: my gardening bucket, floating row cover, my seed starting supplies, etc.

There were many topics the boys seemed genuinely interested in and asked excellent questions about:
  • The parts of a flower - pollination/fertilization - what I called "plant sex 101". They have obviously had some good science teachers and had many "what if" questions.
  • The photos from my post on the tobacco hornworm. They then launched into a discussion about a parasite that injects eggs into a dog's butt and then flies out.
  • Interesting vegetables such as heirlooms. I explained how an heirloom is "true to seed" and often carries a story - such as seeds that may be have been brought to the US by slaves.
  • They were VERY interested in the possibility of growing purple carrots, and some seemed impressed that I am trying to grow blue potatoes and baby corn this year.
  • They were interested in our short talk on weeds. I told them about the hairy bittercress or shotweed I'm dealing with right now, and explained that if you miss the right time to pull them, they'll shoot a gazillion seeds right into your garden if you touch them. They started brainstorming ways to get rid of them - put a bag over it before pulling, put a tarp underneath (smart boys, huh?), light them with a match. I told them my neighbors thought I was crazy enough without walking around with matches lighting all my weeds on fire.
  • One kid asked how to produce the most vegetables possible and asked if fertilizer was the answer. Luckily, I had a bottle of what I use in my garden. I covered the label and had the boys sniff and guess what it was made of. This was so much fun - for me at least. After a few good guesses and several scrunched up faces, I revealed that it was fish emulsion and sea kelp.
  • During our section on garden pests, I talked about some of the struggles in my garden (slugs, raccoons, etc.) as well as some solutions. I told them that the coyote pee and putrescent egg solids (in the deer repellent) have been working to keep the deer off of my daylilies. We then had a short discussion about whether human pee was good for plants. I ended that quickly by telling them to just pee where they were taught to pee.
I had 3 hours to discuss all the topics and unfortunately, I was only able to properly go into detail with about 1/4 of the materials I brought. Though the tasks for this badge seemed relatively simple to the parents (start 3 veggies from seed, 3 from seedlings through harvesting, germinate 100 seeds, identify 5 pests and solutions for control, build a compost bin or worm bin, etc.), there's a LOT to discuss. Hopefully we discussed enough to get them started and inspired, but having done this one time, all these "basics" really require several sessions to properly teach. I feel bad that we had to speed through many of the topics. I'll have to trust them to read the packets themselves.

I sent a follow up e-mail to the parents with instructions on how to help their kids with this badge. I'm also e-mail support. I plan to send a few follow up messages throughout the season with suggestions, questions, and just to keep in touch. There's a requirement for them to visit a garden and share what they've learned. Instead, I'm going to send them to the Washington Youth Garden at the National Arboretum and create a scavenger hunt for them to complete. Finally, at the end of the 90 days, I will follow up with a meeting where they will all bring photos and share out. I was thinking about bringing bulbs or something as a little prize, and also talking about garden clean up at that time.

On Sunday, we started with 10 boys and lots of excitement around the big table. We'll see how many make it to the finish line!!! Gardening may seem easy to novices but the requirements of this badge are really a big task. I hope they all make it!


  1. With you as their mentor, these novice little gardener will get hook on gardening very fast.

  2. Hahaha, "satanic" boy scouts. From your story, they sounded more like behaved little devils. That's great that 10 boys showed up. Not a bad turnout. I can't wait to read about the outcome of their gardening adventure of earning their merit badge. And hopefully some will like to garden! BTW,I'm currently hosting a giveaway of pie cutters on my blog. If you're interested, today is the last day to enter.

  3. Wow Wendy you do this kind of things also? I was a girl guide before and I love badges also hehe... But I can tell you that some things learnt seems not beneficial at that time but later in life, it comes in handy. Have a wonderful Easter to you and your family!

  4. Wendy, I'm impressed, both with your preparation and work and with how in depth the boys will have to go to complete this badge. I'm suddenly looking at Boy Scout badges with a whole new respect. You never know how far these seeds you've sown with your good deed will go. :)

    Oh, and I agree about the higher socioeconomic strata having potentially less opportunity and exposure. I've seen it when I was a nanny to the very wealthy, whose lives were frankly pretty circumscribed by expectations. Whereas the little girl I'm tutoring now, whose family lives in truly abject poverty, is more familiar with gardens than most children, as her grandmother grows a fabulous vegetable garden to supplement their food supply.

  5. I'm really impressed with your dedication to teaching gardening, Wendy. What a great time you must have had and what lucky boys to have you as their teacher. I bet the parents that attended were really grateful to you. I hope you'll post follow-ups.


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