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GARDENING WITH CHILDREN: Seed to Table: Intergenerational Gardening at Sunshine Care

By Susan Starr.

Roy Wilburn, better known as Farmer Roy, is the driving force behind Sunshine Care’s intergenerational gardening program, the Seed to Table Garden Club. I sat down with Roy on a rainy day in January to learn more about his innovative approach to gardening with children.

The program takes place on the first and third Thursdays of the month. About 20 children, preschoolers, home-schooled children and children on summer break, come to garden and mix with the residents of the memory care facility. One of the five organic gardens on site is devoted to children. Upon arrival, they go to work in their garden; they do all the planting, all the harvesting, and take care of the plants.

“The whole idea is to get them in the garden and they all love it. We try to encourage them to eat new things. The kids love (raw) broccoli; it blows my mind.. We also have snap peas and snow peas, which are a big hit…We’re getting into purple and orange cauliflower now.”

Roy makes sure the garden is a welcoming place for children.

"The only three rules that the kids have to obey are: don't step on the beds, don't step over the beds, and no running.”

Intergenerational Bonding

When they are done working in the garden, the children come into Roy’s greenhouse, stuffed to the gills with plants, seedlings and a collection of orchids. There the children interact with their “Grandma’s and Grandpa’s.” The children bond with the residents while planting seeds and repotting plants.

These are eventually put out in the garden at Sunshine or given to local school gardens; some of the seedlings also go home with the children to plant in their own gardens. Additional bonding opportunities for children and residents include: watching the ladybugs released into the greenhouse; enjoying the butterfly garden; and sharing bugs discovered in the organic garden. In the process, the children learn to appreciate the role of insects and butterflies in horticulture. Plus:

“We share garden poetry and songs, and I do a little comedy club where the kids tell jokes,” which are greatly appreciated by the residents.

Roy is well-known in the San Diego area for his tomato planting workshops. So perhaps it’s no surprise that he holds a tomato “taste test” each year for Seed to Table.

“This year I have twelve varieties to plant: the winners from last year, a few that I thought should have won, and some new ones. The children will harvest them and then, together with the residents, will taste the fruit and vote on which ones are the best… Usually it's the sweet ones, like Sun Gold, that win, but I was really happy last year because they liked Black Cherry, which has an heirloom flavor. Good, I thought, your palates are changing too.”

Gardens are therapeutic

Roy points out that his program is different from that found in most school gardens. Often school gardens are used to supplement the science curriculum, since gardens are a wonderful way to teach biology. At Sunshine, for the children, the Seed to Table Garden Club is more about the social aspects of gardening, about bonding with the residents, and about learning the value of volunteering. For the residents, ‘Seed to Table’ is an important element in Sunshine Care’s horticultural therapy program.

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