Behind extraordinary ideas, there are extraordinary people.
Natasha Grogan is turning kids into gardeners
We talk to Natasha Grogan of The Sage Garden – an organic gardening education program for Aussie children.
We talk to Natasha Grogan of The Sage Garden – an organic gardening education program for Aussie children.
Dumbo Feather HQ is buzzing, quite literally – we have bees, with excitement for spring. To talk all things organic gardening, wisdom, American love stories and empowering children, we sat down with Natasha Grogan from The Sage Garden.
Natasha is one of those go getters, make my passion my business, be the change you want to see, wonder women. After a few years working in schools as a gardening specialist through the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Program, she decided to put into action her long-incubated idea to start a child-friendly organic gardening education business. Enter The Sage Garden, offering community workshops, school and kindergarten incursions and home visits to help families create their own organic veggie patches.
I was doing a bit of research on you earlier today and was surprised to learn that you didn’t discover organic gardening until you were 19. I don’t know why that surprises me, perhaps because your business is about encouraging children to get involved in the garden. What type of child were you?
I was loud. I talked a lot and I was pretty cheeky. I have three older brothers and I desperately wanted to hang out with them and be one of the boys. I have always been very close to my brother Ben, who is two years older than me, and would often go down to his room in the middle of the night and sleep on the trundle. I think I wanted to be downstairs with all my brothers. I’ve always like being a part of the action.
Do you only eat organic food? It’s a huge decision to change your lifestyle so dramatically; what was it about organic food that motivated you to make such a bold choice? How did your friends and family respond?
I’m glad you asked that question. I often think people must believe I live a totally organic lifestyle, and that is not the case.
What first drew me into organic gardening was its relationship with the earth/soil. I was reading lots of material on the effects of pesticides and herbicides on soil; it had a profound effect on me. More than anything I felt really sad that our greed and desire for perfection, even in fruit and veg, had gotten in the way of respecting and caring for the earth. I was driven by a desire to care for the soil.
Of course, it’s all part of one ideal. The more organic food I eat, the better it is for me, and the more I eat, the greater the need for more organic produce in the market place. The more being sold, the less it will cost for the general public.
When I returned home from London I was 20 and compelled to tell everyone and anyone about organic gardening and eating organic foods. In reality, I lived with my parents for a while and then went on to many years of share house living. Both these situations, and having next to no income, did not lend themselves to a strictly organic lifestyle. For a long time I ate only organic meats, but the truth is that after a time I got shy of telling my dinner hosts I would only eat their roast if it was organic and sometimes I just wanted that sausage at Bunnings!
I decided that I should stand by my choices in my own home and monitor how I live outside of that. So at home I, and now my family, only eat organic meats and once a week we buy our organic veggies, cereal, etc. at Petty’s Orchard (one of my new finds for 2013). Apart from that I think if my friends or family want to go to the trouble of preparing me a delicious meal, I should enjoy it. And believe it or not, this year is the first year I am setting up a proper veggie garden at my own home. After six moves in six years, I am happy to be setting roots (literally) somewhere. Eating an organic diet will now be cheaper and easier.
So to answer your question, no I don’t eat only organic food. I am a sucker for a bag of salt and vinegar chips and a cold beer, and I have a wicked sweet tooth. Sometimes I do go into a spin when eating something that is clearly not organic, wondering if I’m a hypocrite. I don’t know how to answer that other than saying that I don’t lead a dogmatic life. I do most things, most of the time in moderation. I just feel it is really important that we teach children the best of the best; so that when they are older they can make their own educated decisions.
You told ‘The Design Files’ that the motivation to launch The Sage Garden came from a trip to the US in 1999. What was it about this trip to the home of 20-lane highways that inspired an organic gardening education business?
Well, like all good stories it was a love story. I was 19 and had fallen for an American organic farmer. It was an unmitigated disaster of course, but it does hold the title of changing my life. We travelled around the west coast checking out organic farms and chatting with like-minded people. It was there that I heard about a man who taught children to grow their own organic food. To be honest I don’t remember much of the story, I think it was a tale someone was telling in passing and it just clicked for me. I knew then that that was what I was going to do.
I love your business name! It seems so apt. When I read ‘sage’ I think wise, so ‘The Wise Garden’ that’s all about organic and sustainable gardening; was the pun deliberate?
I’m glad you love it! I remember it taking me a very long time, with many, many emails to my family to decide. It’s like naming a child, you have to love it cause who can be bothered with the paper work to change it! There was a very long list to begin with. In the end The Sage Garden won because of the very reason you pointed out; it was loaded with meaning. Sage is a delicious perennial herb and it means wisdom and to taste.
Historically sage has been used to ward off evil and to increase women’s fertility. I especially loved this combination, I like that we protect the soil from the evil chemicals and bring fertility and new life. The wise garden it is indeed, there is no one teacher; the garden, the children and myself all have a role in sharing our wisdom.
On your website you talk about teaching children the wonder, excitement and empowerment of growing their own vegetables. That idea of empowerment is a really interesting one, particularly in relation to sustainability, which can be so overwhelming in its complexity. But it’s an issue that I associate more with adults rather than children. How do your young charges respond to the classes?
I love the word empowerment in relation to children. I think we spend too much time worrying about our children and not enough time giving them the energy to feel capable and strong. The idea of sustainability is a complex one in some ways and very simple in others.
My approach to educating the children about organics and sustainability is that some of it needs to be via osmosis. If I was to spell everything out, the whys and wherefores I lose some of the wonder and excitement. It is a balance and a choice I make depending of the temperament of each child. Some children will respond better if I lay down all the facts first, they will need to know the purpose and function of everything happening. I respect that.
Largely I run the sessions so the children do the problem solving. For example, if there is a structure we need to build I will say something like “I wonder what we can use from our homes, so that we don’t need to buy anything new? What could we reuse and pop into this spot?” These leading questions often result in wonderful conversations led by the children.
I heard a rumour that Kat Macleod designed your logo, what was your brief to her? I guess I’m asking what you want people to think of when they see your logo and think of your brand.
Kat Macleod did design the logo. She is not only one of the most talented designers and illustrators in the country, but my nearest and dearest friend in the entire world; she was actually the maid of honour at our wedding. The design process was very easy, as Kat knows me very well. I remember sending her some links to images I liked but I don’t remember too much discussion. One night she arrived at my house with an amazing folio of ideas. There were three options, and each had different colour variations, and all presented on business cards, calendars, postcards etc.
I was really overwhelmed, she had done such an incredible and professional job, and believe me over the years Kat has done many, many artistic favours for me, I “commissioned” two pieces of art for two brothers’ weddings, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The logo is of course one from that folio. They were all beautiful, but this one had all the characteristics I was looking for. The drawing has a sense of child like beauty, it is complicated but not overwhelmingly so, and I love the colour. It has a feeling of warmth that I wanted. I think it was after seeing all of Kat’s hard work, and her belief in me and my idea that I though “God, I better do this!” And let it be known on the record books: I owe one Kat Macleod a very beautiful veggie garden for her and her boys to enjoy.
I saw a lot of references to herbs, fruit and vegetables on your website, but nothing about flowers. Is that a conscious decision?
Not at all, in fact it might be a bit of an oversight. I use lots of flowers in my gardening both to deter pests and introduce beneficial insects. I plant them to be a part of family meals and as a vital bit of colour. Poor neglected flowers!
I read that you studied Steiner education; part of the Steiner philosophy is the acknowledgement of spiritual worlds that underlie our existence. When you see something grow from a seed to a tree, or when the blossoms begin in spring, it’s hard not to believe in something greater. Are you spiritual?
I grew up in a Catholic family, going to Catholic schools. I always liked the idea of believing in something and having faith in something bigger than us. As I grew older, I grew curious about other religions and became less interested in calling myself a Catholic. I read The Celestine Prophecy, and The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying when I was 17. Those two books (and The Outsiders) changed the way I saw life.
Studying through Steiner was a great chance to explore other forms of religion and spirituality, the first year is Anthroposophical Studies, which was a very interesting and sometimes very intense experience. Nowadays being in nature is where I feel most grounded, and probably the only time my mind is quiet. It is in those moments I connect to my spirituality, I find it impossible to believe there isn’t something bigger and greater than us at play.