I have a long and continuing relationship with tertiary education and yet lately it seems to me a lot of the most important things I've learned have been through gardening.

There are things known now that I can't conceive of not having known for the first three decades of my life.

How had I not noticed the difference between a winter and summer sun, how its arc changes so dramatically? And its angle compared to the horizon? Now when I visit a new property, I automatically reckon or ask where north lies. Much understanding follows from that single fact.

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Learning to grow food has taught me the importance of learning by doing - a useful counterbalance to some of the more abstract things I've studied. And it's also helped me risk being wrong. As my partner reflects, he's learned lots more from the batches of mushrooms that didn't work than the ones that did.

For someone who has lived in a lot of different places, there is a sweet and quiet pleasure in learning the ways of a specific place. I don't enjoy the buffeting equinoxal winds we experience in Whanganui in spring, but I like knowing they are part of the order of things here. I like knowing there will be just enough light left at 9.30pm to clean my tools on the longest summer evenings (surely one of the loveliest times to be outside).

I like knowing that seasons come early for plants and bees. Daffodils will appear when it still seems the depth of winter to humans, but they sense the lengthening days and the slowly warming soil before we do.

I know now when food is in season. I look forward with anticipation to the arrival of berries and asparagus and tamarillos ... and apples. (Yes, apples. Don't be fooled by their ubiquity in supermarkets. There's no apple as good as the tree-ripened one eaten while still in the orchard.)

There is a growing disconnect with the natural world in general and our food specifically and it doesn't bode well. Even while some young people are eager to learn where their food comes from, they show up knowing less and less, according to experienced permaculture teachers. "We'll send Woofers out to bring in vegetables for dinner and they come back empty-handed. They can't recognise a carrot when it's growing in the garden," one told me.

Not all kids are growing up like this and there are some great initiatives in Whanganui that are helping children make connections with the world outside. I was charmed to run into a horde of kids of diverse ages at Mark Christensen's orchard earlier this summer. A number of Whanganui children are homeschooled and, notwithstanding the very varied motivations of their parents for doing so, they get together regularly for educational outings. On this day, Julia Sich was showing them edible weeds, how and what to forage and ways to eat them.

Some 15 to 20 children take part each week in Dani Lebo's local nature play group, which has been getting some national recognition and support recently. The programme reached hundreds more kids in the last term alone, through visits from schools and early childhood centres.

Plus there are nine Enviroschools in the Whanganui region, including Love and Learn childcare centre in Whanganui East. The programme encourages a "whole school" approach where everything the school community does is seen through an environmental lens, says Whanganui Enviroschool co-ordinator Ron Fisher.


At St John's Hill primary school, children raise chickens each year and sell their eggs and care for fruit trees and gardens. There's a great recycling programme in place, which the kids themselves actively manage.

While the programme may start with a focus on their own immediate environment, over time it ideally matures to a point where the children are benefitting the wider community, says Ron. At St John's, pupils regularly visit Bushy Park. They've been eco-sourcing native seedlings, growing them on and selling them, with the money raised going back to support Bushy Park.

There are side benefits for parents too when children have a greater connection with food gardens. There's less need for the "eat your greens!" nagging.

At just 7, Ron's son Calexico is a keen maker of compost and he knows its value in the garden. He has his own patch. Carrots are a particular favourite - Calexico learned to grow great carrots while he was in pre-school. He's also a keen seed saver.

No surprise, kids are much more enthusiastic about eating vegetables when they have had a hand in growing and preparing them.

Kids like these will grow up to be adults who don't remember not knowing how to sow seed and transplant, how to harvest greens and carrots and cabbages, when to tell an apple is ripe for picking. There's value in that and a lot of practical security.

Our kids face an uncertain and challenging future. As a community, we need to be raising resilient, adaptable problem solvers with a wide range of practical skills. They need to have a relationship with dirt and to understand its connection with food. And they'll benefit from being able to confidently and respectfully navigate wild spaces.

●Connect with Nature Play through its Facebook group: bit.ly/NP-Whg

●Ron Fisher: ron.enviroschools@gmail.com

■Rachel Rose is a local writer, editor - and gardener. www.facebook.com/rachelrose.writer