You might not expect it, but winter is a busy time for Jewish environmental educators like myself. While the garden rests frozen under a blanket of fresh Chicago snow, Tu B'Shvat is right around the corner. This holiday, which celebrates the New Year of the trees, is perhaps the most natural holiday to think about Jewish values of environmental preservation and appreciation. As in years past, my 6th grade students will be leading the rest of the religious school in the Tu B'Shvat seder. There's a lot they will need to learn to get ready, I'm hope they're up for it. I plan on teaching them about the 7 species for which Israel is described in Deuteronomy 8:8, the different types of fruits and wines distinguished by the Kabbalists (who originated the holiday), and the proper blessings for each of the foods we plan on serving at the seder. All this in only 2 classes!!! One excellent resource for Tu B'Shvat teachings is this book called "A Person Is Like A Tree: A Sourcebook on Tu B'Shvat" by Yitzhak Buxbaum whose Table of Contents alone illustrates the beauty and depth of this holiday.
Besides preparing for lessons and the upcoming seder, winter is a great time to plan for the upcoming garden season. Seed catalogs help to pass the winter blues away with their colorful pictures and vivid descriptions. The problem is, it all looks so wonderful you may end up purchasing more than you need!!! Many a gardener has gotten carried away in such a fashion. To prevent this from happening, it is good to be discriminating in the seeds you purchase. I recommend seeds that are heirloom and organic, and ideally local as well if possible. Seed Saver's Exchange has a beautiful catalog, and there are many others out there as well. The next step is to determine how much space you will have in your garden, and then calculate the number of each types of plants that you can fit. Of course, watermelons take more space to grow than peppers, so you'll need to consider your plant selection in this process. I'd like to elaborate on this plant selection process a bit further.
Every plant offers something to a garden, and so their selection ought to be considered carefully. When using a garden for a Jewish purpose, certain plants may be favored over others based on their connection to Jewish use or ritual. Biblical gardens grow plants named in the Torah, and there are many to chose from if you live in Israel, but Chicago's climate is not exactly biblical, which narrows the choices somewhat. Jewish use of certain plants is a bit broader, and includes plants such as Horseradish, which actually grows quite well in Illinois. It is always great fun to dig up the horseradish root in the spring time with the students, and have each one take a homegrown root home for their Pesach seder plate to use as maror. Digging out these roots every spring serves a dual purpose, as horseradish can really take over a garden if left alone. Horseradish's broad leaves also make a wonderful garnish on the seder plate and can even be eaten when young and tender. Its white flowers in the summer attract bees and other wildlife.
Another of my favorite Jewish plants is Coriander, which also is known as Cilantro in its leaf form. Coriander is specifically mentioned in the Torah in comparison to manna, and as such has wonderful sustaining properties. Cilantro is one of the first green plants to sprout in the spring, which is great for extending the gardening season into the school year. Coriander is used frequently as a spice in Middle Eastern cooking, and has many medicinal benefits as well. Every year I have left some coriander seeds unharvested so they self-sprout in the spring. One year, a white pigeon had taken refuge in the garden while it nursed an injured wing. It would nest and hide under the tall and broad horseradish leaves, then come out and eat the coriander seeds for its food. By the end of the summer, the bird's wing had healed enough to fly away, but I was happy that the garden had provided a refuge for the bird, and the coriander its manna!
While horseradish and coriander are a few of my favorite Jewish plants to grow in a Jewish themed garden, the simple radish is also great for its quick Seed to Feed time. Most radishes will grow from a seed to a ready-to-harvest vegetable in about a month, which has some practical advantages as a teaching tool. Radishes are also relatively cold tolerant, so they can usually be planted in April in Chicago and be ready for harvest by May, before the students go on summer vacation. While some kids don't get too excited about radishes for taste reasons, the ability to easily and quickly grow to harvest in such a short time gives a nice reward.
I'd be interested to hear what types of plants readers of this blog consider to be "Jewish plants" or good plants to grow in an educational garden, and why. Until then, its back to Tu B'Shvat planning and seed catalogs. . .