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Ruth Bass: Gardens get help from sun, snow, rain, even lightning

Hands planting vegetable in dirt

Educators say children learn a lot from gardening, developing skills in math, communication and decision-making, notes columnist Ruth Bass. Sometimes they decide to eat a new vegetable when they’ve helped it grow.

RICHMOND — Nitrogen. The 30 inches of snow, more or less, on the vegetable garden is filled with nitrogen.

An old wives’ tale holds that snow is the poor man’s fertilizer but, unlike various of the stories allegedly told by elderly wives, this one is true. And if the frost isn’t too deep, the vegetable garden is snuggled under a nutrient that can seep slowly into the future home of seeds.

Rain, sleet, hail and lightning also contain nitrogen and plunk it onto the soil. Between snow and falling water, a total of two to 12 pounds of nitrogen are annually planted per U.S acre, according to agricultural studies. As any grower of perennials knows, snow also blankets plants in the flower garden, protecting them from cold wind and the capricious thawing and freezing that goes on in a weird February like this year.

Experts say spring snow — and this latest dump was close to spring (and on the heels of spring days in February) — is more beneficial because thawing is underway. Otherwise, the melt runs off, taking its nitrogen with it. One can only hope that the present crop of snow doesn’t melt too quickly.

Even if April is wet and snowy, not impossible in the Berkshires, the seeds will be ready. They’re ordered, online with the handsome catalogs handy. This year, several seed catalogs came after New Year’s, which was once the custom. A few years ago, seed books basically got lost in the avalanche of advice on buying everything from flour to sheets to fruit baskets. Fortunately, our post office has a large bin where unsolicited paper stuff can be tossed.

Thinking about soil, hoes and seeds makes the mountains around the driveway more acceptable. And more people are eyeing buried garden plots. The pandemic, apparently, produced 18.3 new gardeners in the United States, people either tired of shortages at the store or finding something to do in their isolation. Or both.

From birth, I was surrounded by gardens. With all kinds of shortages during World War II, our family lacked nothing in the way of vegetables and fruits. My father’s garden was enormous, we had pear and apple trees and raspberries, and my mother filled cellar shelves with canned beans, tomatoes and applesauce. In addition, my brother and I had Victory Gardens, and a volunteer from the war effort came periodically to inspect them. I know they were small and productive, and mine included a flower called angel’s trumpet. My brother stuck to edibles. Years later, our son had a tiny garden to get a Boy Scout badge and Mr. Persip came out from Pittsfield for the official judging. It passed.

Educators say children learn a lot from gardening, developing skills in math, communication and decision-making. Sometimes they decide to eat a new vegetable when they’ve helped it grow.

From preschool on up, schools are finding space to grow things, and the kids like it, perhaps because they don’t realize it’s a learning tool. Studies show that children 8 to 11 develop the ability to work in groups as they’re poking seeds into the soil.

They learn patience and gain confidence. They think about water, sun, responsibility, environment, nutrition and hunger. Adding gardening to the school day is a growing trend around the country, including some 60 schools in Sarasota County, Fla., plus programs in Tallahassee and Jacksonville. If Ron DeSantis finds out that Florida’s educators believe digging involves critical thinking, he’ll have to slap a ban on gardening in public schools.

The neighbors were askance at first when a professor in North Carolina replaced her front lawn with a vegetable garden, but they came to enjoy it, visually and at their tables.

A professor in California ripped up the backyard, eliminating the lawn, and planted fruit trees, lettuce, kohlrabi and other vegetables among winding paths. They were among the estimated 39 million American households that were gardening in 2020.

What are they all growing? The No. 1 is tomatoes, followed by cucumbers.

Marijuana may be lifting spirits of gardeners these days and gaining on share of garden space, but it’s not a vegetable. It’s weed.

Ruth Bass is an award-winning journalist. Her website is www.ruthbass.com. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.

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