The American Chestnut Land Trust comprises 3,000 acres of pristine forest in Calvert County, Maryland. Nestled in this preserve is Double Oak Farm, a communal food-pantry garden staffed by volunteers, whose aim is “connecting people to the land.”
In addition to providing fresh, organically raised vegetables for members and surrounding communities, the farm hosts youth groups who participate in Maryland Master Gardeners’ Grow It, Eat It program. The children not only learn the history of a vegetable, but they also learn how to propagate from seed in February, put the plant starts in the garden in May, and harvest in September, entering the best produce in the Calvert County Fair. Finally, everyone gathers in the farm’s kitchen to feast on the bountiful harvest.
In past years, participants have raised maize and have seen it through to corn bread; peanuts became peanut butter; and sweet potatoes turned into fine pies. The kids are engaged in every step of the process and experience many aha moments.
Last year at our Master Gardeners’ Seed Swap, I selected a few packets of white, green, and brown cotton seed, which came from Historic London Town and Gardens in Edgewater, Maryland. When I realized that cotton naturally comes in colors, a light flickered on, and our program now includes Grow It, Wear It.
We found a perfect partner in a group at Tidewater School in Huntingtown, Maryland. The school, with its Montessori learning approach and progressive and experiential curriculum, is a perfect fit. All the kids were excited with the prospect of starting with a seed and finishing with a piece of cloth.
We began with a lesson on the origin of cotton and its history in the United States, followed by a seed-starting session. Then the kids came to the garden when the soil warmed enough and put their plants in an 80-foot row. The plants were happy and grew tall and gangly. Cotton is a beautiful plant, and ours has purple and white flowers on the same plant. Mother Nature sure is kind! We ended up with plenty of all three colors of cotton.
The harvest was continuous from September through November, and the kids and their families visited the garden and harvested on weekends and evenings. They received First Premium (a blue ribbon) for their entry in the fair.
Removing the cotton from the bolls and picking out the leaf bits and seeds was the hard part. It took the rest of the year, and finally, we were ready for spinning class. We are fortunate to have an expert spinner and weaver in our Master Gardeners’ group, Betty Seifert, who gladly offered to teach a class. She taught a two-hour session on using a spindle, which held the kids’ attention the whole time. We found out it’s not easy, though; it’s kind of like patting your head and rubbing your stomach while walking and chewing gum at the same time. The kids were better at it than I was.
Seeing the whole sequence, from seed to thread, gave the kids a new appreciation of where their jeans and T-shirts come from. When the children have spun enough yarn, we will move on to our next adventure: learning to weave.
R. T. West is a retired Marine Corps Officer with a BS in environmental management. He has served five years as a volunteer garden manager promoting youth education and regenerative farming.