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The Garden Troopers

Gardeners of the Future

My garden is too big for me — alone, that is. But I have a lot of help, from the kids in the neighborhood. Ward (who’s good at naming) dubbed them my “Garden Troopers.”

I explain everything we’re doing, in detail. I assume that of course they want to know everything they can about this marvel, the garden. I teach them to do everything I do, and have them teach each other. I tell them the names of all the plants — both common and botanical. And I refer to the plants frequently by name, just as I would to a friend when speaking about another friend.

My garden is a sanctuary, a magic place. Everyone feels it. One ten-year old, riding by on his bike for the first time, skidded to a halt gazing at it, with his jaw hanging in amazement. He said to me “I’ve seen this place — in my dream!” I create beauty here for two reasons: for my own joy and healing, and for others’. I grieve at the ugliness of so much of our culture; I want to show people the spiritual nourishment that a beautiful garden gives.

It’s important to me to pass on this knowledge, that seems so scarce, from the evidence of most of the places I see. The kids I work with have mostly not yet been socialized to consider beauty, and nature, as peripheral to their lives. They have good contact with their senses; they know what I’m talking about when I observe that a plant is happy. I hope to support them in keeping this awareness as they grow older, by giving them both hands-on creative experience, and the information to tie it to their education.

Employment Issues

I’ll try working with any kid who wants to. I give them some simple tasks to see how strong they are, and how good their attention is to what I need. Some are good at weeding; others just don’t seem to see the dandelions in the grass. Some can dig more dirt than others (a heavy, tiring job). Some like screening compost, a task I find relaxing and meditative — others get bored with it. (Some enjoy finding the worms, and saving them from the screen, others are grossed out by them.)

I pay them well. I’d rather overpay than underpay, because I hope it’ll keep them coming back. I have to compete with organized after-school activities, and with the pay they can get from easy jobs like babysitting. I used to pay by the hour; it’s simple to compute. But since some kids can get a lot more done in the same time, I had two pay rates: the higher one for anyone who could keep up with me, and somewhat less for everyone else. I had two problems with that pay scheme.

What am I teaching?

First, I kept wanting to ask them to concentrate on what they were doing and not waste the time I was paying for. But this imposed an artificial pace on them, and they enjoyed what they were doing less. After all, I want them to learn what a joy a garden is — including the work. Labor that creates is a deep pleasure. Concentration was especially difficult for the troopers when several were working together; their natural inclination was to socialize and clown around while they worked. I realized that this is valuable, too: I want gardening to be something they fit seamlessly into the rest of their interests; I don’t want to teach a work ethic here.

The second problem arose when I was digging out some very heavy, compacted soil at a neighbor’s house down the street. It was late in the year and the plants had been waiting too long in pots. They needed to be watered everyday, and I couldn’t be there everyday. I felt pressure to get them in the ground. I needed really strong workers, who could get the job done quickly — and there wasn’t room on the site for more than two besides me. My strongest workers were two boys; I hired them whenever they could come, and the girls only when they couldn’t. The girls began to think I was sexist. And what made it worse was that I was paying the boys the higher rate. The complaints I got — “I worked just as long as he did!” — showed I hadn't communicated my reasons for the two rates.


So I switched to paying by the piece, defining each job as worth a certain amount. The kids can take as long as they want to do it. But how to assign value to the jobs? This has been the hard part of this scheme. I try to decide how long it would take me to do the job, and I multiply that by a reasonable pay rate. When in doubt, I overestimate.

Overpaying kept the kids coming back, but I got into trouble with it. I was paying so much that on two different occasions parents objected. I realized that it made me comfortable to avoid the karma of stinginess, but I really wasn’t doing the kids a favor in the long run by giving them unreasonable expectations about money. I needed to take a more responsible attitude. So now I try to do some of every task before I give it to them, to see exactly how long it does take me. When I first switched to this tactic, there were some drastic changes. A couple of the troopers were pissed at me — for good reason! I apologized for my irresponsibility, and for setting them up for disappointment, and I researched what other jobs paid, to double-check the fairness of what I was offering. After a few days, they started speaking to me (and working for me) again.

Gardening Friends

My relationships to these children are important to me. Isolated as I am by my chemical sensitivities, I get more company from them than I do from adults. I enjoy getting to know them and seeing them learn and grow. They change so fast! I don’t have any grandchildren, and that’s fine: I support my daughters’ decisions to live their lives how they want to. (Besides, with my poor health I wouldn’t be able to do as good a job as they deserve in taking the kids off their hands.) But I have plenty of children to share my favorite toys with.

They give me so much. I couldn’t maintain these extensive gardens without them, they give me the garden. But just as important is the camaraderie, the sharing of the work and the pleasure. They listen to my teaching, they give me good attention. They delight with me in the earth. They don’t ever hesitate to stop and watch a butterfly, or smell a flower. I am more grateful than I can say for this friendship. I give them as much as I can: information, training, plants for their own gardens.

Wanting to Garden

When they get to high school, homework and school activities usually take them away from me. Or the need for a job that's dependable and goes through the winter. But there are younger ones coming: one boy, for example has tagged along with his older sister a couple of times — saying he just wants to watch, because his mom says he's too young yet to work. I can sympathize; I'll know I'll get to where I'm too old & disabled to do what I'm doing now in the garden. I just hope I continue to have such good help.


Here are some pictures of Garden Troopers. (I'm just starting to take them, and hope to have more soon.) To see a larger one, click on the picture.

© copyright Catherine Holmes Clark 2000; last updated 25 February 2001