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Radigan is the owner and founder of The Child’s Garden Forest Preschool in Southold. (Photo credit: Victoria Caruso)

One of my favorite reasons to garden is that you become a perpetual student of Mother Nature, always learning, and discovering what is presented to you with each new season. Anyone you meet that is also a gardener instantly becomes your fellow classmate, sharing tricks and tips along with the inevitable learnings from failures. After all, the saying goes “The best classroom is roofed only by the sky.” If you’re lucky enough like I have been, you’ll meet someone who becomes your pseudo professor acting as your true mentor in the garden. For me, that person is Maureen Radigan. Radigan is the owner and founder of The Child’s Garden Forest Preschool in Southold which was established nearly 13 years ago. The school offers a Waldorf-inspired curriculum rooted in imaginative and creative play outdoors as well a vibrant summer camp during the summer months. When we first began Yard Crop, Radigan was one of our biggest supporters as she understands deeply the many benefits of the home garden.

Gardening is a family pastime for Radigan, originated by her mother who always had a home garden, and by her pure Czech grandmother who taught her how to wild forage year-round in Buffalo, New York. “Summer was always a miracle to us. It was always amazing that things could grow again after winter,” said Radigan. They would forage for onions, mushrooms, herbs and berries. Spring and summer were filled with trips to the berry brambles where her grandmother would say “I need somebody small and strong”. Radigan and her siblings would then willingly crawl into the tangled mess of wild thorny berry bushes for the sweet reward of homemade jams, jellies and pies. As she tells me these stories, I can see her experiencing those vivid memories all over again. With a combination of heightened senses and a strong sense of awareness, garden experiences often leave a lasting imprint on our memories.

When she decided to start her preschool, having a garden in the center of the curriculum became paramount for her to build lessons around while forming rhythms and rituals the children could engage with in a natural setting. In the beginning, the school garden was in the school play yard with only flowers and herbs. Through the school’s partnership with the Peconic Land Trust Agricultural Center at Charnews Farm, The Child’s Garden was able to secure a shady, small 12 by 12-foot plot located just behind the school. Having quickly outgrown the first plot, desiring a sunny space for larger crops and room for more children to enjoy the garden, the school continued to grow at Charnews Farm. Now, the school maintains 40 raised beds in a spacious sun-filled area where students and summer campers visit daily to observe, care for and enjoy the garden.

When I asked Radigan the main reason she gardens, she said “When I’m in the garden I feel like a whole person. My breathing changes. I do things instinctively. It’s rest for my brain. I garden following ancient rhythms and I am connecting in a way with my hands and my heart that I can’t do anywhere else except in nature.” 

She tells me how she is always thinking of other people while she’s in the garden. “I’m preparing this now by sowing seeds, but I know in 55 days I can envision the preschoolers harvesting these sugar snap peas”. She is motivated by the hope of the future experiences that are to come from the garden. “Growing food is a crucial way for children to connect with where food comes from and in turn feel like they are connected to something bigger than themselves,” said Radigan.

Garden gushing with Maureen Radigan

AHA MOMENT IN THE GARDEN: One year at summer camp, I realized how important being in the garden was for children who were from the city. The children would race to the golden raspberry patch and one day it had been cut back. The campers were devastated. The kids remember exactly where all the plants in the garden are located, each summer or each school year, like a map inside their sense memory that they could recall. Even with the raspberries gone, they still went there. It was an awakening for me to realize how connected they had become.

FAVORITE PART OF GARDENING: Caring for the soil. I like to imagine that every single possibility is in that little handful of dirt. There are millions of organisms working that I can’t see. Holding the possibilities of everything in my hand; it all starts with the soil. We have a pond at our school. We take buckets of the pond water as tea for the plants in the garden. Curious enough, if we find anything dead in our forest, we put it in the garden and strangely that area is the most abundant. Chicken litter and grass clippings go in our compost along with the children’s food scraps, and that all goes into the garden. We feed the soil so the soil feeds us. 

FAVORITE CROP: Sugar snap peas! “You need two handsies to pick your peasies” is one of my favorite sayings. They are so delicious, easy to grow, and great for preschoolers. So satisfying and refreshing! Oh, and strawberries! The aroma is like a moment of summer. “June June strawberry moon moon” is one of our favorite school songs.

FEELINGS THE GARDEN EVOKES: Belonging. There is a deep satisfaction in being part of a life cycle and not being disconnected from that. We have the understanding that the garden is a living creature. We sing and pray each day at lunchtime, “Blessings on the blossom, blessings on the roots, blessings on the leaf and stem, blessings on the fruit. Thank you, farmers, and bees for growing our food. Thank you, garden.” The garden fosters gratitude. 

TIPS FOR GARDENING WITH KIDS: When my son Skyler was 4, I learned the most important lessons about gardening with children. Try not to be controlling and let the children make decisions too. You’re not going to have little neat rows of things but let them have a chance to unlock their own intuitive wisdom and learn. There was one year Skyler said he knew a perfect spot to plant snake gourds. I disagreed and thought it was more practical to plant them somewhere else, but he planted one where he wanted to anyway. His plant flourished and the ones I planted died. Children have an intuition in the garden. Leave space to foster their magical senses because it goes beyond our perspective.