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The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
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The Educational Aspect of Gardening

by Miss Elsie Ford
Volume 11, no. 8, 1900, pgs. 534-542


From a paper delivered at the Parents' National Educational Union.
Fourth Annual Conference
Held at St. Martin's Town Hall, May 15th, 16th, 17th, and 18th, 1900

It was with some misgivings of mind that I consented to write this paper; for I felt that there were so many others whose knowledge of that important, most vitally important, question of education is so much greater than mine, and whose opinions are more worth listening to. My excuse, therefore, in having written it must be that I am exceedingly interested, as indeed I consider everyone ought to be, in the question of education, believing it to be not merely a matter of four or five hours daily spent for the first few years of our lives in the company of books, blackboard and slate, but that it is a process which begins on the day of our birth and ceases only on the day we die. And if this be true, surely it behooves those of us who are responsible for the training of our own or other people's children, to make the best use of those years of their lives in which their education assumes its most definite form; and to see that not only in their school hours, but in their walks and play, they are receiving such training both of mind and body as will best equip them in future years to become useful citizens and members of society.

There is an educational value in the games which now form such a feature of school life, which is perhaps not realized by half the parents whose children are such enthusiastic players. Indeed some parents are half inclined to regard them as a waste of time. But cricket, for instance, inculcates habits of precision, accuracy, promptness, and obedience; while a boy who knows nothing of the virtues of self-effacement, patriotism and self-control is not likely to help his team to reach a high standard of excellence, even though he be an excellent batter or bowler. The same may be said of other pursuits and amusements of children; and it is of one in especial that I wish to speak. I mean that of gardening.

All children like being out of doors, at least all children whose natural tastes and instincts have not been too early warped by our complex and unnatural manner of living. They are not troubled by such scruples as wet feet, damp days, spoilt clothes and the like. It is only as we grow older and--I feel inclined to say more foolish--that we pay any heed to these details. Indeed I think we may, and sometimes even do, go too far in our reactions from the severe and unbending upbringing of our great grandmother's days, and that coddling may become as great an evil as neglect. On the score of health I am a strong advocate of gardening and the fresh air it necessarily entails for children of all ages; and I have had some experience of their healing powers on those sick both in mind and body, having worked as gardener in a women's convalescent home, where many of the patients were sent out to help us in our work in the garden, while at the same time being cured of their ailments by the open-air occupation. But though, as I say, I think they cannot be out of doors too much, still children must have something to do there, else they will certainly get into mischief; and as they cannot always be playing cricket or going walks, and the making of mudpies has its limitations (as well as drawbacks from the elders' point of view), why not encourage gardening, a pursuit which is an education in itself both physical, mental and spiritual, while being at the same time a source of great enjoyment to the child? For nearly all children like gardening, much as most boys like wheels and engines. But it by no means follows that every child who wants a garden of its own will become a gardener, any more than that every boy who "wants to see wheels go round" will eventually become an engineer; though the boy whose youthful enthusiasm for tools and machinery is given full play and development, will acquire a dexterity in the use of those tools and a store of miscellaneous mechanical information, which will always stand him in good stead, even though his path through life be far removed from that of an engineer. And so, too, of gardening: though how seldom is this taste in a child given the encouragement it deserves. Think what children's gardens too often are! Plots of black unwholesome looking earth in a sunless portion of the garden given to the children "because nothing will grow in them"' and regarded by the elders as messing ground, certain to be unsightly and which must therefore be well out of the way; while the stocking of them is a matter but seldom seriously taken into account, and therefore has to be compassed by raids on the gardener's premises, to the wrath of the gardener, the destruction of the plants, and the eventual disgrace of the young marauder.

Instead of such a state of things, let a child be given a plot of ground in a sunny part where plants will flourish. Personally, I should say in the best part of the garden, for surely the development of a child's soul is of more importance than the symmetry and ordered perfection of our pleasure grounds. This garden should be regarded, not as a place to play in, where it does not matter what is done or grown, but as a part of the larger garden for whose neatness and cultivation the child-owner alone is responsible. And let it be seriously impressed upon him that we are responsible for the well-being of those plants we deliberately sow, and that we have no more right to let them die for want of watering or other attentions than we have to forget to give a cat or dog its food. In after years the child will probably be responsible to a greater or lesser degree for the well-being of some of his fellow-creatures; and how are we to expect him to fulfill this trust rightly if he is not taught in childhood the importance of our duty to others even unto our flowers? The child should be provided with a certain number of plants by the gardener when he is dividing clumps of planting out seedlings, while at the same time he should be encouraged to buy some seeds with his own money and to try and raise them himself. I should encourage the growing of vegetable and edible crops, providing, of course, a piece of ground for this purpose in the kitchen garden, and making the child buy its own seed and then selling the produce to its parents, not at a fancy price, but on liberal market terms, thus early acquainting it with the value of money and the principles of exchange and barter. It should be taught the reason of the things it does, why it digs and hoes and puts on manure, and how these processes help to prepare the soil for the plants to grow in it. It would learn by observation and experience the life-history of plants--how they feed, grow and increase; and the reason of grafts, cuttings, budding, etc. The laws of reproduction and increase are the same in the animal as in the vegetable world, and in what more natural manner could you wish a child to first become acquainted with the great mysteries of birth and death, than to do so through the medium of flowers.

The necessity for accuracy and regularity will be learnt in a manner worth a hundred sermons if some cherished plant dies through forgetfulness to water it, or some seeds never come up through having been hastily and carelessly sown too deep. Experience is a mighty teacher and nowhere more so than in a garden.

Care should of course be taken in the providing of tools and wheelbarrows of a suitable size and weight, as much harm might be done through the wheeling of too heavy barrows, especially to girls; and I may say that my remarks apply equally to girls and boys.

Then there is another aspect of the matter. Besides having their own plots of ground, of the produce of which they are the sole disposers, why should not children help in the work of their parents' gardens as is so universally the case among the working classes? In the case of families of limited means who can perhaps only afford to have a jobbing gardener at intervals, it would be a great advantage if the children who are being educated at home or at a day school were to do some of the lighter work in the garden in their play hours. Indeed there are many cases where two or three boys and girls, with the help of a man in, say, once or twice a week or even less, might entirely manage the garden, aided by advice from their parents, if they know anything of horticulture, or by one of the many excellent books now published on the subject. I have but a poor opinion of a parent who, even if he do know nothing of the subject, yet will not take the trouble to acquaint himself with such simple rudiments of horticulture as would be necessary to begin helping his children who know less than he. He may not have time to do much, but interest and sympathy are more necessary and these he can always give.

I fear I shall be tempted to stray too far from my appointed path if I touch on the wide subject of pocket money, but I would suggest that children's pocket money be to a certain extent dependent on their labour and that they be paid for what they do. I do not mean that they be induced to work for the sake of money, but that if they want more money for any purpose than their regular allowances, they should feel they must earn that money and not merely ask their father for it as so many children do, a custom which I feel is the cause of a great deal of extravagance and carelessness in money matters in after years. And what more reasonable or healthy manner of earning it would you have than, say, weeding at so much a yard, collecting leaves at so much a barrow, or anything else which requires to be done at the time, always expecting the work to be as thoroughly and carefully done by them as by a hired laborer? In this way the pecuniary value of labour would be learnt, and in the case of children of wealthy parents, who are not brought much into contact with the working classes, if they were paid at the fixed market rate of payment for labour, it might be a means of making them realize something of the struggle for life on the part of so large a part of the community, of which many of them are so lamentably ignorant.

Then there is the pleasure experienced in the fruits of our labour. I well remember, as doubtless many others do, the pride I felt at seeing some mustard and cress or radishes of my own growing placed on the table, and my satisfaction on hearing the comments sure to be passed on their crispness and freshness. Had I been in the habit of analyzing my feelings, which fortunately I was much too healthy minded to do, I should probably have discovered that they were actuated partly by pride in the success of my labours and partly by the belief that I had done something exceedingly useful, and that the world in general was decidedly the better for those radishes. Of course I thought none of these things, but only felt vaguely important and useful; but it is just this spirit which to a right degree it is so necessary to rouse in a child, for we cannot begin to learn too early that we do not exist for our own pleasure, but that we may be of use to other people.

This is only a very brief paper in which I have only just touched on the many points on which much more might be said, and there are others, such as the need of patience, observation, and importance of trifles, and which I have left unsaid; but hope I have said enough to justify my assertion that gardening may be a great educator.

~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

A member of the audience asked whether much could be done in such a short time as the holidays?

Miss Ford thought a great deal might be done by children who had been encouraged to take their garden seriously; even in towns they might learn a great deal through the care of window boxes.

Mrs. Holroyd Chaplin: If some energetic person would start a holiday garden at some seaside place, where children could be sent to stay when their parents went abroad, and where they might turn their physical and intellectual energy to account, I think it would be a good plan. I know many parents who would be glad of such a place to send their children to, and feel that they were safe and happy.

Mrs. Franklin asked what elder girls could do in helping to keep up a garden?

Mrs. Rickman: Between the ages of sixteen and twenty, I and my sister, with the help of a man once a week, entirely kept a garden in a suburb, and there was no difficulty about it. We were sometimes rather tired with rolling the lawn all the morning and playing tennis in the afternoon, but that was all. I cannot agree that all children like gardening. I am certain they don't; and if a child has no taste for it, it is not the least use forcing it. A good deal of faith is required, too, as regards seeds coming up. I never believed mine would come up and they seldom did, whereas those planted by my sister, in the firm belief that they would grow, invariably did so.

Miss Ford: Perhaps I was rather rash to imply that all children liked gardening: what I meant to say was that most children like to possess a garden, and have a passing fancy for it. I quite agree you should not force a child to garden who does not care for it. What older girls can do depends on the limit of strength, but an immense amount can be done in the way of planting vegetables and so on, with a man to do the heavier digging. I was gardener in a convalescent home, and many of the patients (girls of about 17 and 18 years of age) learnt to work under my direction, and some of them were a great help. The care of a flower garden is quite within the reach of any girl living at home: planting, sowing, hoeing, weeding, mowing and rolling can all be accomplished, provided the roller and tools are of a reasonable size. The same applies to pruning trees, etc.

Mr. Bagenal: I think this subject should appeal to parents more than it does. Though I was brought up in the country I never cared about gardening and never wanted a garden--I suppose because there were always plenty of flowers and fruit without my thinking about it--and I only began to garden when I came to live in London. I had a small pocket-handkerchief of a garden behind my house, and was tempted to cultivate it. I bought a penny gardening newspaper, and produced quite a number of flowers. My example fired my children to learn gardening; and if parents like gardening, and garden with a certain amount of intelligence and explanation, no doubt the children like to help. When I went to live in the country again, and had an acre of garden, I was able to give my children a piece--in which things actually grow. I have also succeeded in interesting them in the collection of seeds in the autumn. They have their own seeds, and beg for some of mine, and I think it is useful for them to see what the flower really is, and what it will produce of itself. Children like to be shown things in a small and simple way, and I should be glad to see this question of gardening brought forward in the Parents' Review. I almost think a Gardening Club might be promoted, in which children might exchange seeds, and hear the result of gardening experiments, etc., from their fellows. Should anything of the kind be started, I shall be very pleased to do anything I can to help.

Mr. Wilkinson: Referring to elder girls taking part in gardening in their own homes, parents are not always able, from physical or other reasons, to set the example; but I think that if all children were encouraged to take an interest in flowers and gardening, there is no reason why, as they get older, young ladies should not further acquaint themselves with the conditions under which flowers are grown, and employ--instead of a paid gardener at a high wage--an ordinary man under their direction, making him do the rough work, which they should organize. Under these circumstances a very intelligent and delightful improvement might be made in much of the gardening done by those who may not have as much genius as the ladies, but who possess a better knowledge of gardening. I was very much struck with Miss Ford's paper, and I think, in a concise, small way, that it is one of the most useful papers I have heard for a long time. There is one question in it which I think might lead to a further development of thrift. Miss Ford pointed out the grave error of giving children unlimited pocket money for doing nothing. If they were taught to do something for the money, and then the parent agreed to subsidize that money by an addition in the savings' bank--not to be drawn out for a given time--I think the plan might work.

Mrs. Symes Thompson: May I add a word as to the kindness that can be shown in gardening? When violets and other roots are divided, carnations picked, roses budded, etc., the gardeners are very busy, and apt to throw away what are not wanted for one's own garden: it is an enormous interest to the children to be allowed to help, in order that some of the roots, etc., may be given away. It makes a great change from the constant games, which, though amusing are not in any way helpful to others. It would be very nice if, in the Parents' Review, we could have some suggestions as to what might be done in each particular month.

Mrs. Anson: I fancy some parents will differ from Miss Ford as to paying children for their work. The Union has always tried to love the highest and the best, and I do not think paying for weeding by the yard or for picking peas by the basket is a good idea. The child would possibly do more work, but if you pay a child you make it avaricious. It would be better for the child to do the work for the sheer love of mother and of the garden.

Lady Campbell: It struck me that Mrs. Rickman had given us an excellent illustration of a valuable lesson to be learned through gardening. I refer to the result of her own and her sister's planting of seeds. I have not the least doubt that Mrs. Rickman's uncertainty as to her seeds coming up made them not come up, and there is a lesson of faith. Another suggestion. The worst thing you can do is to be constantly pulling up plants to see how they are growing--there is a lesson in patience. So gardening is not only a diversion, but it educates both in a mental and spiritual way. I would like to add that the happiest women of leisure I have ever known are those whose hobby is gardening.

Miss Ford: I ought, perhaps, to say that I did not mean that children should be paid for all they do; but when we wanted more pocket money than our allowance, we never thought of asking my father for it, we were told to earn it, and we liked to earn it in the garden.

Mr. Cotterill (Chairman): It only remains for me to thank Miss Ford for her paper. She also traveled over a large space of ground, and we agreed with almost everything she said. I was, to some extent, in disagreement with her on the subject of paying children, but I think it is only fair to her, and anyone who reads a paper, to remember that such remarks as those are necessarily, in a short paper, undefined by illustrations, which would be used in conversation, or in a longer paper. I am sure the last thing Miss Ford intended to convey to us was that that children should be paid for everything they do. The question is--could that element be brought in in a playful manner? Personally, I feel that no legitimate and honourable inducement to such a delightful labour as gardening should be barred, and though, if I had to choose, I would far prefer that no such inducement as payment should be brought into the matter, still I can quite imagine that cases might arise where an offer of payment might be playfully made by the mother. I was very pleased to hear Mrs. Anson's remark that the aim of the P.N.E.U. was the aim of an ideal. I hope you will never cease to be even extravagantly ideal. My first acquaintance with the Union was only last year, but I carried away from it what I shall never forget, viz., that you do not content yourselves with anything less than an ideal. You will, of course, fail; but what a noble failure! And how infinitely greater is the success of such a partial failure than the complete success of more easy possibilities. I must thank the various speakers who have joined in this discussion. I have, in the course of my life, listened to multitudes of papers. Papers are evanescent, but the simple enthusiasm which has been displayed to-day, and last year, by those who stood up and gave us instances of their own experiences, is most touching, and I believe that you will continue to thrive in the best possible way, if you will keep before your minds that which you seem so steadily to have kept before them in the past, i.e. that your methods are methods which are never satisfied until they approach, and if possible, reach the ideal.


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