Interview With The Man Behind The Lawrence Garden: Mr. Jonathan Norwood

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Food Day Festival: How long have you been gardening? Why did you start?

I have been gardening for over 20 years, ever since my wife and I bought our first home in Lynnfield.  I started with flowers in order to beautify our yard more cheaply than the cost of hiring a landscaper.  I am a noted cheapskate among my friends!  It was only after the first few years that I realized how much I loved it.  I added vegetables to my repertoire about 10 years ago because my wife and I were learning more about the benefits of locally and organically grown food.  We still buy most of our food at the grocery store, but we feel good about our efforts to reduce those purchases.

 FDF: When did you start the Lawrence Garden?

 The credit for starting the school garden goes to Ryan Keser, one of our middle school science teachers, and the generous support of the PTO.  I took over the garden about five years ago when it was time for Mr. Keser to move on to other projects.  It was a natural step for me, both because of my interest in gardening and the fit with the Brookline Public Schools second grade science curriculum.

FDF: How did you decide what to plant in the garden? Are there any vegetables?

 As a second grade teacher, I focused on arranging the garden to support two second grade science units: 1. Soil and Decomposition and 2. Nutrition.  Our primary crops were early maturing vegetables such as lettuce, spinach, and other leafy greens, radishes, green onions, and sugar snap peas.  We also planted garlic in the fall that would mature in the late spring.  We made these choices so that the children could experience the entire food production cycle from preparing the soil and planting the seeds to harvesting mature crops and eating them.

 Since switching to the first grade, I have refocused our efforts on supporting the first grade science units, primarily the study of insects, but we still plant crops for other purposes.  For example, we have a small pumpkin patch with pumpkins maturing right now for studying plant biology and contributing to a festive fall atmosphere in the first grade classrooms.  I was pleased that a kindergarten classroom and a first grade classroom planted several different types of flowers last spring in order to learn about nature and gardening.  Maxine Hunter is using the garden this fall with her 7th grade students to study advanced decomposition and soil composition topics.

FDF:   We hear about the drought in Massachusetts. How has it affected the garden?

The drought in Massachusetts is the most severe drought in my memory and I think the statistics support that infamous distinction.  I have rain barrels for my home garden and we have one rain barrel for the school garden.  This gives the children an opportunity to learn about water conservation and reduces our draw on the municipal water supply.  Nevertheless, the ground is powder dry, resulting in substantially lower yields of vegetables of all types.  If you look at the school garden today, much of the ground is bare because we were forced to take soil out of production due to the lack of water.

FDF: What are some easy ways for Brookline kids to start growing plants? Which ones should new gardeners choose?

At the risk of sounding like a sneaker commercial, the best way for children to start growing plants is to “Just Do It!”  They do need the support of parents who have a “can-do” attitude about trying something new, if they have never gardened before.  Picking easy to grow crops such as radishes, sugar snap peas, and many varieties of tomatoes is a great idea.  Composting or making use of composted materials is important for learning about plants’ need for nutrients and for gardening organically.  Raised beds tend to be easier than trying to grow vegetables in rocky New England soil.  I have a lot of other suggestions for those who might be interested.

FDF: What do you hope students will learn from the Lawrence garden? How can families get involved?

My families have been fantastic at supporting our efforts in the garden.  We just had a fall garden clean-up day and about two-thirds of my families showed up to help.  We accomplished more in 90 minutes than I could have accomplished alone in an entire weekend.

Hands-on learning, whatever the focus, yields better learning outcomes than book-based and classroom-based learning by itself.  Students learn about plant biology, symbiotic relationships between plants and animals, sustainable food production, water conservation, composting, soil composition and soil health, nutrition, and much more!

FDF: What’s the best part of gardening?

I love salads with leaf lettuces, spinach, carrots, onions, radishes and peppers.  The best part of gardening for me is the pride I feel in making and eating a salad that I grew sustainably and organically in my own garden.