The ability to enjoy a fresh raspberry in January is the type of luxury people have become accustomed to, but where did that raspberry come from?
Definitely not Alabama, according to Gail Pless, master gardener, educator and docent of the Birmingham Botanical Gardens. Raspberries don’t grow well in Alabama to begin with, she said. In addition, transporting out-of-season fruits and vegetables negatively impacts the environment.
“We don’t need to have jet fuel carrying those all the way up here,” Pless said. “There is a lot more energy put into a piece of food than we really need to spend on it. And if it’s fossil fuel energy, which most of it is, we’re affecting our environment.”
The solution, campers learned on day one of the Birmingham Botanical Gardens’ first Urban Farm Camp, is preservation.
Pless has been a docent at the BBG for 15 years, and she promotes organic, seasonal and locally grown food. As the primary volunteer educator, she explained the importance of those three traits during the week long camp, which took place June 22–26.
An urban farm grows local produce or raises livestock in an urban setting. It could be a backyard garden, a rooftop full of tomato plants or a plot of land with rows of various vegetables next to a bus stop. The urban farm isn’t designed to feed a city, but it can be a tool to reconnect people to their food source, become healthier and share an appreciation for the land with the community. At the BBG farm camp, this started with learning the importance of plants and how they grow best.
Children are our future, Pless said, but they “are losing touch with their food supply.” Some children have never been exposed to fresh vegetables in their life, she said, and a few of the participants were surprised when they discovered they enjoyed new foods.
“The first day we came up here and they got to pick beans and eat them,” Pless said. “There were five kids that were like, ‘I hate beans. Hate the beans.’ [Then] ‘I love beans!’”
Urbanization — the process of moving to or near a city — is a trend, Pless said, and that is why it is important for children to grow an appreciation for gardening, health and community. Pless often let the kids take home vegetables straight from the garden to share with their families — something she hoped the kids would also do for others later on in their lives.
During the week, the camp used games to teach kids complicated topics, including the food chain system. Campers took a trip across the road to the Birmingham Zoo to learn about butterflies and other pollinators. They also made worm bins to create nutrient-rich compost and tested soil for pH, texture and fertilization.
Claudia Williams, 9, explained how pollination works in an urban setting. “If you’re like really high up, bees can’t get to your garden,” she said as Ruth Varnell, Pless’s assistant, helped her figure out the solution: add bee hives to your garden.
“Your job as an urban gardener is to recreate [the components of a healthy garden],” Pless said. One of those components is knowing how to bring life to sterile soil bought from the store. She didn’t want to overwhelm the campers, Pless said, but getting them to love gardening was the first step.
“I had huge plans for the week, and it is a little sad for me that I haven’t gotten every little thing in their heads,” she said, with tears glinting in her eyes. “Because I feel so passionate about kids understanding that we really need to save our planet.
“Yesterday, we talked about global warming and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere… [The kids] have definitely caught on to the idea that more plants are what we need to get ourselves back in balance.”
Camper Emma Anderson, 9, took some lessons away from the experience. “I wasn’t really thinking about how [plants] affected our world,” Anderson said. Her favorite new knowledge: how to take care of a garden.
“Today, we’re learning about how different plants use different soil,” she said. “Like if it’s too sandy some plants can’t grow in it.”
Even the volunteers at the camp learned something.
“I think it’s cool how plants breathe [carbon dioxide] in and exhale oxygen for us,” said Calliope Ross, 12, a volunteer counselor and Girl Scout.
“A city is not an evil entity,” Pless said. “It’s the way humans live…It’s just a question of understanding where your place is in the natural world, where you have to be cognizant of what is going on around you.”