Sharon Lovejoy opens up her bag
of great grandma tricks in new book
A horticulturist, gardener and award-winning author and illustrator of books for the young and young at heart, Sharon Lovejoy is on a mission to address children’s “imagination deficit disorder.” Her grandchild-friendly backyard in San Luis Obispo is the play laboratory for projects in her just-published book, "Toad Cottages & Shooting Stars" (Workman Publishing, $14.95). Workman is posting daily activities from the book on its blog.
Lovejoy, pictured above, garnered an international following in garden circles starting with her first book, "Sunflower Houses: A book for children and their grownups," which has been in print for nearly two decades. "Toad Cottages," her latest book, is an ecologically inspired guide to 130 green activities that any adult and child can do together. Indeed, Lovejoy and her husband Jeff Prostovich are featured in the book’s pages with their four grandchildren. (That's granddaughter Sara May on the book’s cover in a big straw hat.)
“I wanted my grandchildren to think of my garden as magical too – full of opportunities, tastes, sights and scents that would lodge themselves in their hearts,” Lovejoy writes. “I didn’t want a garden to mean work. I wanted a garden to be synonymous with joy.” I recently spoke with Lovejoy about her work, including her new book:
You have had a lifelong love affair with nature, especially California’s flora and fauna. Can you explain how that passion began – and grew?
My ancestors were Quakers who settled in Pasadena in the 1870s. The first seven years of my life was a child’s paradise. Our cottage was in the middle of peach trees, apricots, boysenberries and hollyhocks -- in my Grandmother Abigail Lovejoy’s garden in Highland Park. I just thought it was the norm to have a garden like that, and I remember jumping off the back porch, running along the hollyhock path and banging through her screen door for the next adventure. My grandmother was one of the original members of the Los Angeles Audubon Society; I still have her membership card from 1947. We fed the birds, we put out twigs and string for nest-building. We did all the things that I now do with my grandchildren.
More questions and the perfect bubble recipe after the jump...
What are a few ways a busy parent or grandparent can motivate children to turn off the television or electronic game and “go outdoors,” even for a few hours?
I think we need to become really involved with our children. There’s only a certain window of opportunity. You have to catch them and give them quality time. We try to gain an open door into what they like, what their minds are like. For example, we take our grandkids to art galleries and we all get together and ask one another, “What did you like and why do you like it?” In "Toad Cottages," I have a section about dinnertime, called “the power of the table.” In it, I reference a Vanderbilt University study that indicates shared mealtimes, when actual give-and-take conversations occur, are a strong predictor of how a child’s language skills and literacy will develop.
What is a good nature activity for a very young child, such as a toddler?
Take a child outside to stimulate the senses and touch scented plants, such as a peppermint pelargonium (scented geranium). It’s important to take young toddlers out at night to listen and see. I have a section in "Toad Cottages" on “bird words.” Let kids tell you what they hear when the birds sing. Children can find such wonder in small details. I’ve seen children in New York City after a storm, picking up worms from a gutter. Readers can use my recipe for homemade bubbles. No true Grammy would ever be caught bubble-less. (See recipe, below).
How about engaging an older child, say a 10- to 12 year-old?
These kids are yearning for experiences. Our kids have such a fast-forward childhood now. When you decelerate and take care of that imagination deficit, they will embrace it – sitting around a campfire, watching star showers. You have to make those experiences, though. If you don’t have a backyard, go to a local park; look for tracks along the creek.
What does today’s grow-your-own-food movement mean for fast-food kids?
I find that when I’m talking around the country, so many children just don’t know where food comes from. If you can start them growing food, you’ll show them the spark of life. One of my projects is to grow a “kitchen garbage garden.” Plant your leftover pumpkin seeds, orange seeds, beans or peanuts on a windowsill and watch them grow. You can even do this in an apartment. Kids can watch a pumpkin seed sprout on a wet paper towel and then plant it. Or break open a raw peanut and drop it into a glass jar of wet yarn. I did this with my grandson and he loved it. It’s something he eats every day on a sandwich and now he sees it sprout as a plant.
Finally, can you explain how to make a toad cottage?
Maybe you won’t even have toads in your yard, but you’re getting a pot and propping it up on a rock and familiarizing a child with something they otherwise might be afraid of. (In her book, Lovejoy suggests decorating a clean, dry terra-cotta pot, at least 6 inches wide, using brushes and water soluble acrylic paint.) The child has made a home for that toad in the garden and tucked away the pot in a dark corner. There’s mystery and magic – and the possibility factor.
Grammy Brewer’s homemade bubbles
2 cups water (distilled water works best)
½ cup blue Dawn (not Ultra) dishwashing detergent
¼-cup light corn syrup or glycerine (found in skin care sections of pharmacies)
Gently stir the ingredients together and try not to create foam.
Pour the mixture into a lidded plastic container and store it overnight before using.
Mix gently and pour the bubble mixture into a tub or large plant saucer. Dip a wand in and blow!
Lovejoy recommends making homemade bubble wands from plastic strawberry or tomato baskets, as seen at right. She also stretches a wire hanger into an elongated circle. Wrap the handle in tape to prevent scratches and wrap the circle of the wand in cotton string or chenille stems, which will absorb and hold more solution for longer blowing.
Photos: Author Sharon Lovejoy, top, photo by Jeff Prostovich. Book cover, courtesy of Workman Publishing. Creating a garbage garden, middle, and bubble-blowing with tomato baskets, bottom, are two of the project in her book. Photo credits: Miki Duisterhof