It may not quite have the same ring to it as the old English proverb, but it has a lot more truth to it for those of us who live and garden in the mediterranean climate along the West Coast. In our part of the world, the seasonal cycle and its effects on the natural world are far different from the patterns described in stories, songs, and science books children encounter as they learn about the world around them. This can lead to rather absurd results when children are asked to deny the evidence of their own senses. A teacher visiting San Francisco Botanical Garden (SFBG) in mid-December asked his students what squirrels do in winter. “Hibernate!” they shouted, even as they watched the lively creatures racing around begging for food!
Unfortunately, without awareness of climate and seasonality in the places they live, children will not develop the understanding they need to become effective citizens who can address larger issues like climate change and loss of biodiversity. Being aware of what is “normal” for a place and time allows us to recognize when things are out of sync and no longer follow expected patterns. One of the best ways children can develop this kind of place-based awareness is through gardening and other interactions with plants in the landscape.
In the SFBG Children’s Garden, our programs go year-round, taking advantage of the mild climate to give kids opportunities to connect with plants through the seasons. As school programs get underway in the fall, children can be forgiven for thinking that perhaps they are making a spring visit, as our plants sometimes are confused about the season as well. “Spring” seems to start as early as October when the return of life-giving rains leads to the abrupt greening of the surrounding hillsides. While the days may be getting shorter and temperatures a bit cooler, the plants are responding to end of months of drought by putting on new growth. Native wild lilac (Ceanothus) and exotic magnolias (Magnolia) alike respond to the springlike conditions by beginning to bloom, though not with the vigor they will when true spring brings longer days. We help children visiting our garden observe where the sun is in the sky and where shadows fall throughout the year so they can recognize the fundamental driver of seasonal change.
Our landscape will stay lush and green through the winter, though our orchard trees lose their leaves in the fall, just like in the storybooks. We’ve selected special low-chill varieties that will bear crops despite mild temperatures during the colder months. As our springlike winter progresses, flowering plants awaken, with native and non-native plants blooming in their turn as the months pass. One of the most powerful tools we use in the Children’s Garden to help children connect with the seasonal cycle is observation and sketching. Using simple garden journals, students making multiple visits take a close look at an orchard tree, first bare except for buds, then covered with fragrant blossoms, and finally forming tiny fruit.
During our weekly Bean Sprouts Family Days, we invite children and their caregivers to the Observation Station. Staff and volunteers help them look closely at what’s happening in the garden and record what they see with pencils, crayons, or paint. By taking the time to really notice what is happening around them, children become anchored in the reality of their experiences.
Teachers generally request our “Flowers” walk in the spring semester, following the traditional seasonal curriculum, but we offer it beginning in January. Children explore the garden with volunteer guides, and observe bees and hummingbirds visiting flowers for nectar or pollen and unknowingly pollinating the flowers at the same time. Students explore the differences in colors, shapes, and other features that tend to attract one pollinator versus another, and learn how essential it is that bloom time corresponds with the presence of pollinators. If the timing is off, fruit production suffers, a lesson with critical implications for our food supply. While the flower show peaks toward the end of the school year as damp soil and longer days overlap, and the pollinators get busier with warmer, brighter days, we can teach about this relationship at any time of the year.
For many San Francisco children, fog is the hallmark of summer vacation, and they look forward to it like children in other areas await hot, sunny weather. We enlist our summer visitors to water the Children’s Garden, which would otherwise see no moisture other than the fog for many months. Many of our plants don’t grow much during the summer, at least in years when the fog keeps things especially cool and dim. We’ve learned to time the planting of warm weather crops like zucchini, pumpkins, and beans to take advantage of San Francisco’s late summer, with warm temperatures peaking in September, three months after the summer solstice. By the time school children are back to visit us in the fall, there are fruit to harvest and seeds to collect, just like the science books say, but when they help us “put the garden to bed for the winter,” rather than prepare for snow, they build compost piles and plant cool weather crops like fava beans and lettuces, ready for our winter “spring” to begin again.