Friday, November 12, 2010


Friday, November 12, 2010

A beautiful morning here on the mountain with lots of activity at the bird feeder but patience inside the house waiting for the temperature to get out of the twenties before I embark on outside work. I have been fortunate to receive five days of warmer weather and I'm pushing every sunny minute to knock off more of my "before it really snows" list. My big goal is finishing the new machine shed which is a major undertaking.

Years ago I built a little platform bird feeder to place outside my office window. A 2' X 2' piece of plywood, old strapping for an edge to keep the seed in bounds, and a piece of 6' by 1/2" pipe and a pipe flange to secure the wood and create the platform. I love watching birds and their social behavior is as interesting to me as anything else. Birds aren't into social networking yet but they sure exhibit behaviors that really do emulate humans. Right now there are five blue jays lifting up and down on the feeder as a sixth bird, the bully of the blue jay world, attacks and pecks the others as if every seed is his (or hers).

Unlike the birds, I do use Facebook and I enjoy it immensely. A couple days ago I found a garden writer in Illinois named Doreen Howard and yet another relationship was formed. Doreen will release a new book next spring entitled Heirloom Vegetables, Herbs and Fruits: Savoring The Flavored Past The publisher is well known garden book publisher Cool Springs Press. I hope to do a review of the book soon but if you don't hear from me, buy the book anyway.

What I found out about Doreen right away was that she had a connection to a Vermont writer, Cheryl Dorschner, who I knew from her work with the National Gardening Association and the Burlington Free Press (example inc.) Doreen described Cheryl as a mentor and the word has brought me to today's thoughts.

I have always been an advocate for mentors regardless of what the relationship is. Last spring I got into a tussle with the local school board because they were going through budget cuts necessitated by challenges to their proposed +13% budget increase that drove me senseless. During their review they wanted to cut back two mentoring programs, one was actually an alternative but school focused program offering individualized curriculum. The other was what I consider mentoring in the stricter sense with community members, individuals or couples, assigned to an individual student. I tried to explain the financial implications to failing with a child in school. I asked how many kids had already dropped out in the past year and no one had or wanted the answer.

A child who drops out can easily become a $30-$50,000 per year burden on society for life if he or she ends up in specialized care, prison, or raises a family with additional members in similar quandaries. Mentors can provide a student with understanding and guidance that parents, family or school cannot. I remembered well that at age 12 I had a mentor when no one used the term. She was one of America's early female landscape architects and she guided me through design and care of Vermont's flora in her special, ahead-of-the-curve gardens. It must have been useful as lots of years later I'm still gardening.

In the late 60's as I was winding up at the University of Vermont, I began a study of prison systems and I became interested in how some institutions had developed gardening programs for offenders. I studied some programs in England and an interesting program across Lake Champlain at Dannamora Prison in upstate New York. By 1975, I was helping manage a Vermont community prison that was built for 90 offenders but housed twice that many in the first year. As I looked to a program that would take some of the more trusted offenders outside the walls during the day, I developed a three acre vegetable garden as an activity. This was before people spoke of garden therapy or horticultural therapy but it was just that. We pulled together a bazillion local resources including Garden Way (the store), Troy Built (tiller company), people from the National Gardening Association ...the list over the three years of the project probably exceeded 100. What was special about this project is almost no one ran away, the behavior of those involved was excellent, and time spent in custody was minimized. The real key was the volunteers who mentored the participants. Mentoring works!

Two days ago the local TV network aired another story about mentoring. In Castleton, Vermont the state college formed a relationship with the local school and now every 5th and 6th grade student has an individual mentor from the college. This is fantastic. I don't know if gardening is is any way involved yet but the model is strong and I know the outcomes will be too.

Some master gardener training programs suggest that MG's mentor, take on local projects, offer guidance, start community gardens, grow for a food shelf. One-on-one connections clearly make a difference. Some experienced gardeners even become "gardening consultants" with fancy names which means you pay for the advice. But to my liking are those who share their knowledge and experience freely and have as a goal strong friendships and better gardeners. At Vermont Flower Farm, Gail and I have an objective that every new visitor is greeted by the time they walk though the front gate. When you walk through, a new relationship is formed.

If you have mentoring stories or comments, let us know!

Writing from the mountain above Peacham Pond where a curl of wood smoke is settling in the valley and chickadees are flying into the feeder from everywhere. Another nice day on tap.

George Africa
The Vermont Gardener
Social network connections through Facebook at Vermont Flower Farm and Gardens
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