OLD MANHATTAN HAS SOME FARMS
Local L.A. Author, Susan Lendroth, Shares Her Insights About Neighborhood Gardens in a Clever Play on the Beloved Children’s Song.
– A Junior Library Guild Selection
Lendroth’s new read aloud, sing aloud picture book, Old Manhattan Has Some Farms, (Charlesbridge, $16.95, Ages 3-7) is a clever way to introduce urban farming to youngsters while also encouraging interaction with the enjoyable and catchy E-I-E-I-Grow! refrain. The places highlighted in the story are (Manhattan) New York, Atlanta, Chicago, Toronto, Seattle, and The White House in D.C. Little ones will get a brief tour of North America while learning all the different ways to grow food in lots of different locales.
Whether you’ve got a windowsill or a rooftop, Lendroth’s included a variety of garden venues that should make getting started a looked-forward-to adventure. Illustrator Endle’s bold, primary colored art is cheerful and warm like the sunshine, but she even makes a rainy Seattle inviting with swirls of clouds against a lavender sky. Best of all, Lendroth’s included in the end pages what she calls Green Matters with more info on all the ins and outs of urban gardening such as beekeeping, hydroponics and worms. There are links to additional resources and a free song, too, from Caspar Babypants.
Good Reads With Ronna: Old Manhattan is quite different from your other books. When did the seed of this story begin germinating?
Susan Lendroth: Thanks for asking that question, Ronna; I really hadn’t thought about it before now. The truth is that my books — published and unpublished — are all over the map, but yes, the first four that were published all dealt with the past in one way or another, while Old Manhattan Has Some Farms is definitely current. The rhyme just popped into my head when I read an article about a rooftop garden in New York and sort of hummed to myself, Old Manhattan Has a Farm … It’s a bad habit of mine, singing and/or rhyming without warning. I have fought my tendency to write in rhyme because the market for rhyming books is smaller than for picture books in prose. However, sometimes, a rhyme just breaks free, and there is no corralling it.
GRWR: Why do you think the public is experiencing a renewed interest in urban farming and is this a passing trend or here to stay?
SL: Unless we find a more efficient way to clean the air than plants do as a by-product of photosynthesis, I hope making our cities greener is now the norm rather than the exception. Throughout human history until the last 100-150 years, it was commonplace for householders and market gardeners to grow produce in urban areas. Before the advent of fast transportation and refrigeration, it was the only way to put fresh fruits and vegetables on the table. We moved away from that system when it became possible to mass produce food and truck it in. However, another product of our fast-paced age, the internet, has made accessible a great deal of information about the harmful effects of certain pesticides, and people are concerned about the source of the foods that they are eating. Buying from reputable local growers and growing their own foods gives consumers more control. I like to think that our last 100 years of totally separating food sources from consumers was the aberration rather than the norm, but I can’t predict the future.
GRWR: The farm to table movement is something I’ve noted in more restaurants of late. To what do you attribute this?
SL: Fresher produce tastes better. Restaurant patrons can visit farmers markets just like chefs do so they are becoming more savvy about what is available and more discerning about what they want to eat.
GRWR: I just visited Manhattan where The High Line on the West Side was attracting scores of visitors who want to be surrounded by nature. There’s something similar in Paris, too. Do you think this is the next phase in cities around the world?
SL: Oh, I hope so. As cities and their satellite suburbs cover larger and larger stretches of land, it pushes the “countryside” further away. No one should have to commute an hour or two to find a shady nook. And the green spaces are also the cities’ lungs, helping to clean the air and lower the temperatures.
GRWR: Old Manhattan Has Some Farms is a great idea to get kids excited about growing fruit, vegetables, herbs, and getting honey from beekeeping. Did you grow up in a city and do this as a child? And if not, do you do it now with your daughter?
SL: I grew up in a suburb of L.A. where we had a nice-sized backyard. My parents planted a few veggies for us to tend as children, but Mom was more into roses than radishes. I do remember corn and tomatoes, but unfortunately, recall a bumper crop of tomato worms more than our harvest. My daughter and I live in an apartment with a private patio, but it’s shaded for most of the day which means that while tropical plants thrive there, when it comes to sun-loving produce — not-so-much. When my daughter was three-years-old, we planted a few seeds in containers lined up against a sunny wall in the carport. I don’t know if the bees failed to find and pollinate the blossoms or (more likely) the pots were far too small for the plants, but we raised lots of leaves and one watermelon the size of a walnut. Now I stick to herbs on the windowsill. Basil is hearty enough to survive even my poor gardening abilities.
GRWR: You’re so knowledgeable on the subject of sustainable gardening and even include great resources in the back matter of the book. How can parents, schools and even our government encourage more Americans to go green?
SL: Many organizations exist with just that mission. There are foundations dedicated to promoting gardens in schools, neighborhood groups reclaiming city lots for community gardens, architects devoted to designing green buildings, etc. I think anyone interested in any aspect of urban agriculture will be able to find like-minded individuals in their own community with a quick search on the internet. The best encouragement we can all give is to support the movement with our efforts and our funding:
– buy food from co-ops, farmers markets and supermarkets that promote locally grown and organic crops
– make donations to community organizations that reclaim lots, plant school gardens, etc.
donate books, DVDs and other materials about urban greening to local schools
– buy a few potted herbs at the market and let your children tend a windowsill garden, and then cook with them — sprinkle basil on pizzas, dill in a salad, etc. Let everyone taste how fresh makes foods pop.
GRWR: What else would you have liked to have included in the book that space simply did not permit?
SL: Actually, this is one of the first times I wrote a book where I didn’t feel constrained by the word count. One of the benefits of rhyme is that it serves as a kind of shorthand where much is packed into a few words. Plus, I was allowed a section for back matter to explain concepts further so I was satisfied. However, I am sure that there are many elements other people may have wanted me to include, such as backyard chicken coops or cities of different syllable counts, like Portland or Dallas, that just didn’t fit my rhyme pattern.
GRWR: In your opinion, which city or state is doing the best job of promoting urban farming?
SL: I have no way of ranking the efforts. What I do find amazing is how many of them are taking place, from city officials greening up rooftops to municipal codes being changed to allow beekeeping to an edible garden being installed at AT&T Park, the baseball stadium of the San Francisco Giants. Whether a city or state’s efforts is large or small, the fact that any effort is being made should be applauded. I’ll leave the measurement of those efforts to someone else.
GRWR: Can you tell us about the free song by Caspar Babypants readers can get with your picture book?
SL: The amazingly talented Kate Endle, who illustrated Old Manhattan Has Some Farms, is married to the equally talented musician, Christopher Ballew, A.K.A Caspar Babypants. He volunteered to record the book’s text as a song. I’m tempted at readings to just whip that out and play it for the audience while I turn the pages, but in the interests of being more interactive, I gamely sing book with my less-than-professional voice. And audiences are great about singing the refrain with me: E – I- E – I – Grow!
GRWR: Is there anything else you’d like to add before we all head off to buy some seeds?
SL: How about a healthy tip? Right now is a great season to buy organic grapes. My favorites are the black seedless. Pluck them off the bunch, wash them and let them dry on a baking sheet or paper towels spread out on a table. Once they are dry, bag the now clean, ready-to-eat grapes and freeze them. They are the most terrific snack. My daughter says they’re better than ice cream. And they will last long beyond grape season.