SPROUTING SCRAPS : Laguna Beach Author Judith Handelsman Grows Gardeners With Kitchen Garbage

Corinne Flocken is a free-lance writer who regularly covers Kid Stuff for The Times Orange County Edition.

If you have kids and a mailbox, chances are you also have catalogues on toys. Leaf through any of them, and you'll probably come across several of those nifty prepackaged gardening sets.

You know the ones. A couple of plastic pots, some dime-store seed packets ("guaranteed to grow!") and a glossy, four-color instruction booklet--all vacuum-packed and ready for holiday gift-giving. Approximate cost: $14.95 plus shipping, handling and optional gift wrap.

Helping a child appreciate nature is a fine thing indeed, but the way author and gardening expert Judith Handelsman sees it, we'd all be a lot better off if we spent less cash and more time, effort and imagination.

"I'd like to give parents and children a way to spend time together where they don't have to go shopping and buy more stuff, and where they can learn something and have something beautiful from things they already have at home," explained Handelsman, who will host a free family workshop Saturday at Borders Books and Music in Mission Viejo.

The 2 p.m. program will include demonstrations and readings from her latest book ("Gardens From Garbage: How to Grow Indoor Plants From Recycled Kitchen Scraps") plus hands-on involvement for selected audience members. The program is recommended for all ages, and seating is available on a first-come, first-served basis.

Her book was originally published in 1993 by Millbrook Press for use in grade schools and libraries and was named one of the best children's science books of 1993 by the Washington, D.C.-based American Assn. for the Advancement of Science and one of the best children's books of 1993 by the Child Study Children's Book Committee of New York's Bank Street College.

Peppered with colorful, cartoon-like illustrations by Anne Canevari Green along with dozens of quirky food facts, the book has proved so popular with families that Millbrook started distributing a softcover version in September to bookstores across the country.

A former gardening columnist for Vogue magazine and the New Age Journal, Handelsman has been up to her elbows in potting soil since the early 1970s, when she published her first book, "Green Works: Tender Loving Care for Plants," a layman's guide to houseplants that she said sold more than 150,000 copies before it went out of print last year. She's at work on a third, as yet untitled book about what she calls "the inner philosophy of gardening" and eventually plans to present a regular adult lecture series on that at Corona del Mar's Sherman's Gardens.

"My life's work is to write and . . . inspire people about the interconnectedness of our life through gardening," said Handelsman, a Laguna Beach resident who makes no secret of the fact that she talks to her plants regularly. "There are spiritual rewards to gardening. I cultivate myself as I cultivate my garden.

"Children can be very open to this idea, but you have to get to them early before the peer-group pressure is too intense. This is a materialistic culture, and even though I think things are improving, there still isn't a lot of support for this idea."

As you might expect, the projects in "Gardens From Garbage" go beyond the usual yam-stuck-in-a-jarful-of-water activities typically found in the classroom, although all of them are easy for even a young child to accomplish with help from a willing adult and can be created with simple table scraps. Some are instantly gratifying, such as plunking the prickly crown of a pineapple into a pot for an instant succulent-style centerpiece or sprouting lentils for use in salads.

Others require more patience.

Citrus seeds can take a month or more to sprout, so don't hold your breath waiting for your first harvest. Handelsman writes that a citrus tree grown from a seed can take as long as 15 years to bear fruit.

Little-known facts about food in history are scattered throughout the book. A blurb in the root vegetables chapter explains that ladies of the court of King James I of England decorated their hair with carrot leaves. A section explaining how to grow luxurious vines from sprouted potatoes describes how the Incas created the first instant mashed potatoes by crushing and drying them into a white powder and mixing them with hot water, salt and butter. (There's no mention of pan gravy, but then again, the Incas probably weren't hip to the Colonel's chicken, either.)

A recent experience at a South County elementary school reaffirmed Handelsman's belief that children who take part in her projects reap mental and spiritual rewards.

"I went into this classroom, and we read from the book and started an indoor garden," she recalled, "and I said to these kids, 'Who in this class likes attention?' Of course, every single kid raised their hand.

"Every living thing, every person, every plant, every pet loves attention, and the more nurturing you give to something alive, the more it thrives," she continued. "The kids just beamed because suddenly this wasn't a dry science project. It was magic."

* What: "Gardens From Garbage" workshop.

* When: Saturday, Nov. 5, at 2 p.m.

* Where: Borders Books and Music, 25222 El Paseo, Mission Viejo.

* Whereabouts: From the San Diego (5) Freeway, exit at Oso Parkway and drive west. Turn right on Cabot, then right on El Paseo.

* Wherewithal: FREE.

* Where to call: (714) 367-0005.

MORE KID STUFF

IN SANTA ANA: VICTORIAN FAIR

On Saturday, Nov. 5, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., the Discovery Museum of Orange County, 3101 W. Harvard St., tips its hat to the Victorian era with live music, vintage cars and collectibles as well as children's crafts and games. Admission is $6, but kids under 3 are free. (714) 540-0404.

IN MISSION VIEJO: 'JUNGLE BOOK'

The Paper Bag Players invite kids to bring a sack lunch and chat with actors as they prepare for an audience-participation show. The play opens Saturday, Nov. 5, and runs weekends at noon through Nov. 20 at Children's Theatre Village, 23891 Fabricante, Suite 612. Tickets: $5. (714) 581-5402.

IN SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO: LIVING HISTORY

Six- to 12-year-olds can get up to their elbows in Native American history in this series beginning Saturday, Nov. 5, at Mission San Juan Capistrano. Classes meet from 9 to 11:30 a.m. and may include adobe-making, seed-grinding or role-playing. Fee: $10. Reservations required. (714) 248-2049.

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