Home & garden | Local teacher grows a garden of Jewish values

Debbie Togliatti

Debbie Togliatti, a preschool teacher and garden instructor in the Young Fives program at Palo Alto’s Oshman Family Jewish Community Center, gets some profound questions from kids. “Several years ago, the kids were digging and found some earthworms. One boy asked, ‘Teacher Debbie, do earthworms talk?’ I was prepared to say, ‘Of course not, they’re worms.’ But another boy said, ‘Of course they do; you just don’t understand their language.’”

Togliatti has taught at the school for nearly 30 years and, as a second-generation gardener, has long been familiar with the language of the earth. She’s the author of a new book, “Growing Jewish Values: Cultivating Your Jewish Roots in Your Own Backyard.”

The book celebrates Judaism’s relationship to the natural world, with chapters set out in seder-like order to highlight such values as shomrei adamah, being guardians of the earth; ohev et ha briyot, loving all creatures; and hazan et hakol, feeding everyone, sharing the bounty.  Togliatti’s 69 pages give plenty of practical but easy-to-follow advice on cultivation, composting and harvesting, and offer simple, creative ideas for family gardening based on projects she’s worked on with her students. The OFJCC’s educational philosophy — inspired by the Reggio Emilia method, which focuses on interest-driven learning amid an environment of objects made from natural materials — dovetails nicely with her goals in the garden.

Togliatti’s classroom plans focus on participatory learning. She likes to hand kids paint-store swatches of dozens of shades of green or yellow and asks them to match the swatches with the rainbow of hues in the garden. “Get your kids outside, get them away from the computer and the iPad and video games. … Find a way to get them outside, even just for half an hour, and increase it to an hour.” She also stresses the importance of adults modeling a positive attitude toward nature. For example, “Kids are terrified of bees. You can model that, ‘This is part of nature, you don’t have to embrace it and make it your pet; just give it some space and let it be.’ ”

Kids run up to her on gardening day with hugs and requests to plant favorite vegetables, with even the 2-year-olds participating by digging and watering. And more often than not, garden time becomes snack time, as her students enjoy what they’ve grown before they even get back inside.

At school and in her book, Togliatti emphasizes respecting the cycle of nature, and she teaches patience and respect through advocating for eating locally grown foods in season.

She anchors “Growing Jewish Values” in the concept of honoring nature, kavod ha teva: “The scope of nature is so grand, I don’t really think you can do some of the other things in the book without having a partnership with nature, if you haven’t had a chance to interact with nature,” she says. While she doesn’t explicitly say, “Today we’re going to talk about kavod ha teva” in class, Togliatti tries to convey the meaning by taking advantage of opportunities as they arise. “The other day, we saw a hummingbird hovering above us, and we stopped to say, ‘Oh, look, a hummingbird!’ We’re all so busy, you have to take a second to say, ‘That’s so cool!’ The way a plant feels or smells or tastes — there are so many ways you can observe nature.”

A big part of Togliatti’s narrative is the weaving together of her personal story of conversion to Judaism with her intensifying interest in gardening. Born Catholic in the city of Gilroy, she pretty literally grew into Judaism after working at the JCC for decades.

“I wasn’t all that connected to Catholicism,” she says. “I went through the motions of it, but I didn’t need to go to church. All of a sudden, I found myself at a Jewish school and saw what other teachers were doing, how excited they got for Shabbat. My family never got so excited about Easter.” In Judaism, she found a religion that honored the harvest at Sukkot and Shavuot, and even had a New Year of the Trees. She began to celebrate Shabbat at home, and after taking to heart the famous “If not now, when?” verse from Pirke Avot, completed her formal conversion process in 2007 at age 50.

Togliatti’s personal Jewish practice continues to center on the love of nature, with a move four years ago to a working three-acre farm in Los Altos Hills that was truly beshert. She cares for the gardens and 19 chickens, assisted by a beekeeper who harvests the honey. She also does garden consulting for clients through her own business, Weed It and Reap: Garden Restoration and Design.

“No matter what your garden situation is,” says Togliatti, “an acre of land or a small patio, you still can connect to Judaism through gardening. If you plant one small garden and attract one butterfly or hummingbird, that’s enough.”

“Growing Jewish Values: Cultivating Your Jewish Roots in Your Own Backyard” by Debbie Togliatti ($18.50, at www.growingjewishvalues.com)

 She will lead a workshop and sign copies April 27 at the Hazon Food Festival, OFJCC, 3921 Fabian Way, Palo Alto. www.paloaltojcc.org


How to plant purple green beans

Not exactly Jack and the Beanstalk, but did you know you could plant a little magic in your garden with your young child?

Green beans are a summer favorite to plant in the home garden, but why just plant a green variety? Why not try a purple kind, one that grows purple on the bush or vine and then magically turns green when cooked? Or if eaten fresh off the vine, the outside of the bean is purple but the inside is green. It’s fun and easy to do:

• Select your planting site, preferably with a minimum of six hours of sunlight a day.

• When planting in the ground or in a raised bed, be sure to add some good organic planting mix to give the soil some nutrients.

• A good variety of purple “green” beans is Royal Burgundy. You can generally find them at your local garden center, and they come in cell packs with at least six plants, most likely more.

• Space the plants according to the tag’s instructions. Dig a small hole, lace the plant in the soil, make sure the roots are covered and water them in well. Once watered, push down lightly to make sure the roots are solidly in the soil.

• Be on the lookout for the lavender-tinged flower. Before you know it, purple pods will appear against the green foliage of the plant. It’s quite a beautiful sight.

• When they’re about 4-6 inches long, pick them and eat immediately or lightly steam them and see the purple color vanish. — debbie togliatti