Sunday, June 23, 2024

CitySprouts, our homegrown group of urban gardening educators, has come a long way in its 22 years. Under Jane Hirschi, it’s grown from an operation sprouting plants in a few classrooms to one conducting garden-based science lessons in more than 20 public schools – and as of Tuesday has its own picture book, “We Garden Together!: Projects for Kids: Learn, Grow, and Connect with Nature,” from Workman Press. The introductory gardening book features planting and growing activities that can be done in a small yard, classroom or community garden, from sorting seeds and going on worm hunts to planting all the fixings for a salad, all with step-by-step photos and discovery prompts designed to “make it easy and inviting for kids everywhere to become plant lovers and nature explorers.” In the summer of 2021, the organization said it was inspired to make sure its programming was more accessible to youth with fewer material resources.

We talked to Hirschi on Feb. 6 over Zoom; the conversation has been edited for length and clarity.


What do you hope this book will accomplish?

I hope that parents, aunties, grandparents and any adult who has children that they love have fun exploring the growing world with a young person. I hope that the light that young children feel looking at a worm, discovering a snail or even just looking at the different shapes and sizes of leaves can become joy that adults share as well. It’s so exciting to explore and discover the natural world right where you live. I think a lot of people are told that you can’t garden if you don’t have a yard, and that’s just not true. As we say in the book, “a garden is anywhere where you have plants.” It can be inside, it can be on a windowsill, it can be anywhere. You can grow things everywhere, and we don’t want families to feel like that’s something that they don’t have access to.

How did you begin promoting science equity?

It’s a big idea, and I feel very passionate about it. When I started out with CitySprouts, Cambridge Public Schools and Boston Public Schools were so open to it because they saw how children responded to it. We’re not doing anything that replaces the quality science education that’s there, but we make it more accessible and we get kids learning outside. I know many schools and teachers want that for their students, but it’s hard to do it yourself and I felt like it was something that I could help with. It’s really a partnership with teachers.

How did you choose which projects to put in the book?

We had to really narrow it down – we have so many projects that we’ve done over the past 20 years, and there are also many teachers whose projects we’ve adapted and added to our programs. Some of the activities that we picked might not feel like a real activity for adults, who might think, “Well, we’re just walking around looking at leaves,” but writing them down gives them structure. Our activities can be anything from planting seeds to finding seeds in the cupboard, discovering, “Oh my goodness, these are seeds we eat and they’re right here in our house,” to taking walks out in the neighborhood. We show adults that this is a real thing. And it’s fun, and kids love it.

What have you learned throughout creating this picture book?

Kim Lowe, the photographer, is amazing and fabulous, and I learned how hard the photographer works. I was an assistant at the garden for a couple of days, and there were a lot of people there trying to capture these great pictures of children doing really simple things, like putting on their pipe cleaner antlers. There is a lot that goes on behind the book that you don’t see. It looks very spontaneous, but Kim and a lot of other people worked really hard to get those shots. We also wanted to be sure that we were getting a collection of kids from different backgrounds. We wanted to be sure that we had enough children of color in that book. We didn’t want anyone to read it, thinking, “Oh, that’s just a token child.” We don’t name that in the book, but it was a very conscious effort to be sure that we had kids of all different skin tones gardening. There’s a real lack of that in activity books, especially in gardening and nature books, and we wanted to get more African American families and families of all different cultures represented. I feel really positive about the effort that we made there. I hope that the book gets into the hands of families who haven’t done a lot of nature exploring or growing in their home, apartment or house before. I hope it really increases the number of families and the kinds of people who feel like this is for them.

What do you hope young readers come away with?

I imagine they’ll just come away with a lot of joy. Even in the film shoot, these are children whose parents brought them to be in the book, but from their perspective, they’re just doing the activity, having fun playing with a watering can or making something new. It’s really gratifying to see how regularly kids find joy. We just need to make sure that we adults give them the space and the time to do that. It’s just fun. It’s exciting.