“Can we have a water break soon?” We have just started gardening class and I know these fifth graders are more thirsty for wonder than they are for water.
“We’ll break for water in a little while,” I promise, knowing that the children’s carefully lined up water bottles will not be touched.
It is Autumn, a season for a harvest of pumpkins and the last tomatoes, for planting garlic, improving soil, and waiting as long as possible to harvest the carrots before they are buried under deep snow. At our school, Autumn is also a time to turn our attention to our hoop house where we plant and harvest all year long. The hoop house is uncovered for the summer months so it doesn’t overheat and so the soil can receive direct sunlight. Then, at Michaelmas, an enormous plastic sheet is unfurled on the baseball field.
Middle school students surround the sheet, grasping it firmly and carefully pull it over the ribs of the 48 foot long greenhouse in the same way the kindergarteners might pull a blanket over a doll cradle.
I like to think that our practice of adding a layer of clear plastic to the uncovered hoop house (to create a protected sun-filled space) is a fitting tradition for the Michaelmas season, a time when we turn inward, searching for light and strength.
Just as Michaelmas is a time to call on the courage we need to face the frigid months ahead, we call on the most courageous plants of the vegetable world to thrive in the demanding environment of the winter hoop house. Lettuce, kale, leeks, carrots, peas and spinach can tolerate the alternation of sun-warmed days and frigid nights. Of these, it is spinach which grows best, the iron-rich Saint George of the plant kingdom. Now, in early autumn, beds of green bunny ears, the spinach cotyledons, appear. Soon they will develop the first of the true leaves and come under the protection of the clear plastic protective sheet that will hold in the warmth of the sun. We will harvest from these same spinach plants until well into spring.
But it is not spinach that rouses the curiosity of the fifth graders. Mid-way through class I ask a student to hold a running hose over a strawberry bed and ask him to call his classmates individually for their water breaks. (Note: it is important to use a lead free hose for drinking.) One at a time, the fifth graders bend over a flowerbed, searching for the biggest round nasturtium leaves they can find. The best leaves for their purpose are about six inches across, large enough to make a pouch held between two hands. The entire nasturtium plant is edible including the round leaves which are crisscrossed with pale stripes in an asterisk pattern. The children carry these unique, disposable leaf-cups to the running hose and fill them again and again, drinking eagerly from their leaf-lined hands.
Then the magic. Everyone keeps a silvery drop of water on the leaf, gazes at it in amazement and then begins to roll the little ball of water around the leaf.
If you and your children have never swirled a drop of water in a nasturtium leaf, you must find a nasturtium plant and give this a try or, ideally, play with nasturtium leaves in the rain as I did recently with a fourth grade class (see video below.) Water drops on these leaves behave in a most unusual way. They don’t thin out and run across the leaf. Rather, they bead up into round transparent balls that roll merrily around the leaf when it is moved.
This activity is not new to the fifth graders. Exploring nasturtium leaf magic has been an autumn ritual at our school for some time. Long ago, I showed this unusual phenomenon to a group of children, but I no longer have to do this. Each Autumn, children excitedly carry these round leaves into the recess yard to show this marvel to new students, first graders and their teachers.
Wouldn’t it be lovely if all knowledge could be shared with such eagerness?
The younger classes are more likely to create experiments with the interaction of water and leaf than to ask an adult for an interpretive commentary. However, by fourth or fifth grade, when wonder blossoms into a deep curiosity, queries emerge about why water behaves differently on a nasturtium leaf than it does on, say, an oak leaf. It is then that I tell them about the nano-hairs on the nasturtium leaves that elevate the drops on a layer of air.
At the end of Autumn gardening classes baskets of beans and corn, carrots, squash, lettuce, cucumbers and more are delivered with delight to the kitchen door where our school chef takes delivery from our little farmers and then incorporates what we grow into lunch. But, while the autumn harvest of wonder and curiosity do not fill baskets, these too provide a type of nourishment that sustains.
Kim Allsup is happy with her hands in the soil, surrounded by children planting seeds, watering plants and discovering earthworms. A Waldorf teacher at the Waldorf School of Cape Cod, and a writer, she blogs at Growing Children. She loves this quote from Rudolf Steiner, "It is absolutely essential that before we think, before we so much as begin to set our thinking in motion, we experience the condition of wonder".
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