The pandemic seems to have inspired a lot of folks to get their hands in the dirt a little more than usual — or maybe for the first time — this year.
We recently reached out to Megan Brakeley for some tips and perspective on making the most of your family’s garden.
Megan is the Food & Garden Educator at Middlebury College. She’s responsible for the abundant garden at the Knoll. She is also mom to Hazel, 4, and Solomon, 2.
During a typical summer, Megan works with students out at the Knoll, growing some 140 varieties of crops to be harvested for the college’s dining services and to supplement the local food shelf at HOPE. (She also coordinates a host of other programs, community outreach and events, which you can read about here.)
But this year, with most students back home, Megan is up at the Knoll with two staff members who’ve been reassigned from the college’s catering team. In an effort to meet the emergency food needs of the community, they’re growing just 10 crops that can be easily stored — such as onions, garlic, shelling beans, beets, butternut squash — and almost all of it will go to HOPE. Any excess will go to Chief Don Stevens to distribute to folks in need through his Abenaki Nation channels.
When she’s not at the Knoll, Megan also gardens on about half an acre at home with her family. She currently has six beds and a “compost castle.” Here’s some of our conversation.
On how the pandemic motivated her
Like a lot of people, my home garden has never looked so good as this year, because we’re home. We’ve got a lot of stuff growing. There was a part of the early spring where I just didn’t know if I was going to have a job, and much of that nervous energy got directed into planting…
On fences, and putting your garden where the people are
One of the things that’s really saved us, this whole period — and actually all the time — is a fence. We live right next to the Otter Creek, and we’ve always been hyper-aware of the creek as a powerful force for creation and destruction. My spouse built a fence when my kids were toddling. This one’s really ugly because it’s cheap. I don’t like the idea of keeping people out.
Of course, a week after having it, I was like, this is the best thing ever. We love the fence. It allows us to keep some of our sanity. Solomon has been getting up at 5 a.m. and he just goes straight out buck naked into his sandbox.
Our gardens are inside the fence, and so yes, my children are definitely involved.
To put gardens where people are — if that means you put a big pot of soil on your deck where you sit — everything will grow better if you’re in proximity.
On helping her children understand where food comes from
I did not grow up gardening. I grew up with a family who had two fulltime-plus working parents. We always made homemade meals, and our meals were, like, instant mashed potatoes and frozen peas and canned asparagus. I have been on a mission to just see what happens when kids are in an environment where they’re just conditioned to know that food comes from plants — and love and care.
On convincing kids to try different veggies
I am not above calling everything a lollipop. Like, a kale lollipop. We’ve done it for a long time: You stab it with a chopstick or a fork and call it a lollipop.
We’ve been playing a lot with the concept of a taste test. Hazel says, “Let’s do a taste test!” She closes her eyes and opens her mouth, then I stick a green in there. I am amazed because they’re still at that golden age where they trust and they’re not being informed by peer pressure. We try to make sure it’s always OK if they don’t like it, and sometimes they’re willing to give it another try.
On the power of observation
There’s not a right way to garden. Plants are incredibly robust, and we have had this long, long relationship with most of them. It’s a dance, and we’re both pretty good at it.
The biggest thing to me about being a successful gardener is honing the power of observation. It’s having some skill to name things, but also making the time to really look at stuff and say: What is this plant telling me? That’s stuff that kids are already so good at. But to give them a little bit of language and to model that for them…
I try not to say, “Don’t touch that!” to my kids in the garden. I’ve learned so much from Hazel’s preschool teachers (they’re so brilliant). I’m always amazed at how teachable my kids are. They need to know why. We’ll say something like, “That plant is a baby, here’s how we can tell it’s a baby, so we need to be gentle with it.”
On keeping pests away
This is another proximity thing: If you’re sitting there, the bunnies aren’t going to come eat your peas. For insects, keeping things really well watered can be really important. The more stressed the plants get, the more susceptible they are to insects.
For bigger pests, that’s hard. For us, the fence helps, and we have some neighborhood cats who help out. You can buy coyote pee, you can get a hav-a-heart trap. The easiest way is really to just be out there.
On keeping your garden manageable
Gardening feeds us. Our bodies need sustenance, and our souls do, too. I’ve had gardens where I couldn’t give them the time I needed, and that weighs on me. That’s the antithesis of a garden. Having things in pots, keeping the scale really small and manageable, knowing about the seasonality of plants is helpful.
On gardening goals
If gardening does nothing but help deepen our appreciation for our incredible local food producers: wonderful! There are worlds within worlds contained within gardening and growing and we are so fortunate to have some local experts weathering it here, feeding us all.