For many years, Rosalind Creasy kept up a unique garden-to-table tradition with the children in her Los Altos neighborhood. With the kids' help, Creasy would plant winter wheat in her front-yard garden, harvest it and bake it into bread.
"Kids would come over and plant the wheat. Then they'd come back on the Fourth of July; they'd come that morning, early, harvest the wheat, thresh it on the driveway and put it on a wheelbarrow," she said.
After her gardener used a leaf blower to blow away the chaff, Creasy would place the wheat in a grain-grinder attachment on her kitchen mixer, make flour and then bake the bread, all with an assist from little hands. "The children would bring the warm bread to the neighborhood," she said. "It was like a sacrament. We ended up with this amazing connection with bread. We've grown the wheat and produced the bread," she said.
Creasy, a renowned author, photographer and pioneer in edible landscaping, emphasizes the point that our culture has lost touch with the origins of our food. The intense flavors and bright colors that come with a home garden, particularly with heirloom varieties, can help re-create that connection, she said. When kids are helping tend the garden, the possibilities for connection — and fun — are pretty much limitless.
Hidden Villa farm in Los Altos Hills is exploring those possibilities with a rare chance to hear Creasy speak on Nov. 3. The community farm is hosting a free "Gardening With Kids" class with Creasy. Though the topic focuses on sparking children's imaginations in the garden, the class is for grown-ups only.
The class at Hidden Villa came about through its homesteading program.
"That is how Ros met one of our farmers and just had a connection. Then we saw her incredible garden and wanted to do everything we could to share her skills," said Jessica DuVal, director of communications for Hidden Villa.
Hidden Villa offers a variety of classes geared for young families, and Creasy has a long connection to the community farm, starting about 30 years ago, she said, when farmers at Hidden Villa planted a rainbow demonstration garden for her.
For this class, even those with not-so-green-thumbs shouldn't fear: It doesn't take a project on the scale or skill level of making homegrown wheat into bread to pique children's interest in gardening — and to use a garden to encourage a child in their unique interests. Though for beginners especially, Creasy recommended planting herbs because they're easy to grow, they're edible, and they have a variety of scents that children can explore.
"I call them edible plants with training wheels," she said.
Creasy was a groundbreaker in championing planting an edible garden in the front yard, rather than a lawn, in the early 1980s.
"I had a front-yard garden in Los Altos, which at the time was considered heretical. I took out the lawn and put in a vegetable garden. It was a magnet for neighborhood children who kept wanting to come in and see what was going on," Creasy said.
Gardening with the many young visitors to her front yard taught Creasy that letting the children guide the process was often the most effective way for them to experience the garden. If an interesting bug appeared during a planned activity, for instance, the activity might suddenly be set aside for an exploration of what bugs could be found in the yard.
"I realized that I couldn't have any rules — gardening is caught, not taught," Creasy said, noting that in her own upbringing, her father had given her a vegetable garden at age 5 and encouraged her to plant what she wanted where she wanted.
To draw children into a fun experience in the garden, if you can, base it on their individual interests, Creasy said. The best plants to use, she said, are simply "ones that they like."
"Are they really artistic? Put in different colors of poppies and learn the color spectrum. If they're more the scientist type, or interested in bugs, (we could talk about) 'what flowers are we going to put in to attract the bugs?'" she said.
In the spring, it could be fun to grow a garden of natural Easter egg dyes using various colors of beets. In fact, Creasy emphasized the importance use of color — something she finds sadly lacking in the current Silicon Valley aesthetic right now.
"There are just a hundred things you can do. You have to get out of this strait jacket that 'it's got to be a little plot,'"she said. What you plant doesn't have to be traditional varieties.
All tomatoes aren't red, and all radishes aren't pink, Creasy noted — choose the colors that appeal most to a child: maybe an orange tomato or a purple radish. One way to get children interested in the garden might be serving them lavender-colored mashed potatoes made of blue potatoes, or a stir fry made from sprouts, and asking kids if they'd like to grow them.
Especially because children "want rewards faster," as Creasy put it, sprouts and radishes, which grow quickly, will provide more instant gratification. Planting a tree that bears their favorite fruit will take much longer, but will also reap a satisfying reward, especially when a child understands that it is their special tree.
"There's such joy to be had in the garden that people just don't explore. My whole message is 'lighten up,'" Creasy said. "The garden is this wonderful magical place. You have to let it happen."
Gardening With Kids takes place Nov. 3, 6-7 p.m., at Hidden Villa, 26870 Moody Road, Los Altos Hills. Creasy will also present a "Kitchen Herb Garden" class Nov. 24, 6-7 p.m. at Hidden Villa. Classes are free but registration is required. Register at hiddenvilla.org.