Planting a connection between children and the earth may seem difficult in today’s world of video games, computers and DVDs. Generations away from the farm, many children today don’t have a connection with soil and seed. Gardening can help re-establish that connection, and much more.
“Most people don’t know where their food comes from or the joy of working with the earth, and that’s what we hope to instill in [the participants] when they’re young,” says Frank Wertheim, founder of the educational children’s gardening program Kids Can Grow (KCG) and extension educator of agriculture with the University of Maine cooperative extension.
In addition to supporting future farming and gardening, programs like KCG and gardening at home can help children develop a strong sense of community, responsibility and generosity. “Gardening teaches kids that they can do something. They can accomplish growing food. Part of the reason [KCG] is so successful is because they get that sense of ‘This was mine and I did it.’ It gives a sense of accomplishment and self-confidence,” Wertheim says.
From Seed to Harvest
Children can find a sense of wonder in gardening that doesn’t exist anywhere else — and one they might not even have known existed until they get in the garden and see for themselves. “When we first put in the herb bed here and the herbs started growing, the kids were so excited to see and smell the different herbs,” Wertheim says. “It’s such a kid-friendly, touch-friendly experience. The kids have even less experience with herbs than with vegetables.
It opens up a whole new world to them to be able to have their own garden and pick and smell and taste and touch.”
And while the KCG program is limited to 7- to 12-year-olds, you can start much younger children planting seeds of their own. “You’ll do a lot more of the work yourself, and their attention span may not be as long, but if they’re willing to listen and learn, they can garden,” says Susan Tkacik, KCG volunteer and master gardener. “If they put that seed in themselves, and later it comes up to be a sunflower, that gets some excitement,” Wertheim adds.
For those dedicated to spreading the gardening impulse to children, a program like KCG provides a fun, simple outlet. The Stanford, Maine, program involves around 30 kids and 15 master gardener volunteers per year. One Saturday a month from April through August, the kids and master gardeners meet for group training and planting sessions. On the first Saturday, the children are divided into six teams of five, each with two master gardeners and a group 3-by-5-foot growing bed. Each team assembles a10-inch high raised wood bed and fills it with organic soil, compost and soil amendments. They use pushpins and string to divide their plots into 15 one-square-foot sections. Then, they choose their plants according to a simple square-foot gardening plan: four lettuce plants fit in one square; tomato plants occupy four squares each; 16 carrot plants fit in one square; spinach is nine per square; basil and parsley, four to a square. The children get different choices of plants each year, depending on what supplies have been donated. The square-foot gardening plan simplifies seed choice and planting, and maximizes the garden space.
“A garden plan is very handy,” Tkacik says. “It’s absolutely amazing how much these beds are producing. My garden at home that I worry over every day isn’t producing as much as this!” she says. The key to success is making sure kids garden in an area that’s somewhat small and has good soil so they won’t have to fight a ton of weeds, Wertheim says.
“A standard [practice] is to grow something like radishes with kids, because they grow quickly and easily — but not a lot of kids really like eating radishes,” he says. “Grow whatever they’re excited about growing, be it a sunflower, pumpkins, tomatoes or whatever,” he says.
Another important aspect for kids is keeping things fresh and experimenting to find out what excites them. A child who finds weeding unbearable might change her outlook when she gets to make cool lavender crafts.
Each Saturday, the KCG students have a new lesson. After planting, they’ll learn about mulching and caring for their plants, then watering, looking for bugs, weeding , fertilizing and harvesting. As the summer goes on, the lessons broaden to include nutrition, crafts and sometimes cooking. Each team creates a team name and a team sign to place next to their bed. Crafts might include terracotta stepping-stones, plant markers and scarecrows. There is a nutrition lesson on the food pyramid, and at the end of the season the kids make harvest pizzas using the vegetables from their gardens. “There are so many facets to this program, there’s almost always some aspect they’re interested in…be it crafts, tasting and smelling things, making the signs, cooking or tasting new foods,” Tkacik says.
" When [the kids] can give vegetables they've grown to their family, friends and relatives, it's a tremendous esteem boost. We're hoping a majority of these kids will become lifelong gardeners."
The group Saturday sessions are only one aspect of the KCG program. Each KCG child also is paired with a master gardener volunteer who acts as his or her home gardening mentor. The mentor comes to the child’s home — once a week, once a month, whatever works in the mentors’ and families’ schedules — and aids him or her in building another 15-square-foot garden bed that exactly mirrors the one at the extension, except that at home the child makes all his or her own planting decisions, and is individually responsible for the crops.
Although they’ve had their lessons at the extension, questions inevitably come up during the home gardening, and the kids rely on their mentors for help to overcome those obstacles. “Kids do need a fair amount of help from an experienced gardener. The gardener helps transfer that enthusiasm and just helps figure the garden out,” Wertheim says. “Like carrots, for example — some kids have never seen a carrot top before, so when they come up they don’t know if it’s a weed or a plant.”
Plus, the mentor-child relationship adds another wonderful element to the program, for the kids and the adult volunteers. “The kids are really proud to show their mentors what they’ve accomplished, and a great relationship develops. Plus, a lot of times the kids teach a lot to their parents, too,” Wertheim says.
These home gardens reinforce the child’s sense of responsibility, and of self-empowerment. “They can choose whatever they want to grow, and it’s very possible that they will actually produce what they wanted. It gives a sense of responsibility; it’s not just ‘throw seeds in the ground and walk away.’ It’s really up to them to make sure it gets enough water, or not too much. The kids are totally responsible for their beds at home,” Tkacik says.
And children feel an even greater sense of accomplishment when their home gardens are successful because they’ve done it all themselves, Wertheim says. “When [the kids] can give vegetables they’ve grown to their family, friends and relatives, it’s a tremendous esteem boost. We’re hoping a majority of these kids will become lifelong gardeners.”
Personal gardens also allow young people to develop their own gardening tastes. “One year a boy was so fascinated with herbs, he didn’t want to hear about vegetables or flowers. Just herbs was all he cared about,” Tkacik says. “We have a picture of [him] and the program director with his home garden, and all he grew was herbs. He was our herbalist. It took him all summer to master saying ‘echinacea,’ but he did it,” Wertheim says.
Reap What You Sow
At the end of the program, the children harvest and donate the vegetables and herbs from their group gardens to “Plant-A-Row for the Hungry.” Last year, they donated more than 400 pounds of produce and won a first-place award in the Northeast Regional Master Gardener “Search for Excellence” contest. In 2001, they won a 4-H community service award. “We have one of the people from Plant-A-Row come to take the food to the shelter. It is such a big deal to the kids. After they weigh it all, they turn it over to the Plant-A-Row volunteer, who explains the program to them, and how much their donation is appreciated. I think it makes a big impact on the kids,” Wertheim says.
The program works so well because the kids’ group and individual gardens are almost always successful, in part because of the master gardener supervision, but mainly because the raised-bed gardening plan ensures they’re starting with good quality soil and organic compost. “Our overall goal is to get kids excited about gardening by providing them with pretty much a surefire way for the garden to work. They’re starting out with so much support that it ensures a more successful first garden, so they have a positive experience working together as a group, producing their own food, being part of 4-H and donating food to another cause,” Tkacik says.
The group has worked to expand to other areas of the country, allowing other 4-H and community groups to use their program as a model. “We’ve been exporting the program to other places. I’ve done workshops on KCG in Colorado at national master gardeners’ meetings, at a master gardener advanced training school in Oregon, and in North Carolina to a youth gardening symposium. I’ve written a grant and if it’s funded we’ll start the program in all of the other New England states. We have other counties in Maine who have already adapted it,” Wertheim says.
The only difficulty in replicating the program is its heavy reliance on community donations and volunteers: the charge for the program is only $20 per child, so children of all income levels can participate. Each child gets lumber, soil, compost, seeds, seedlings, fertilizer, lime, craft supplies and a T-shirt — far more than a $20 value. The Maine Pine Tree 4-H supports the Stanford program, and at the end of the year participants create a group display for their local 4-H fair. The program’s master gardener volunteers work to procure donations from community businesses to keep the program affordable.
“What makes it difficult to replicate is that it is intensive; you can imagine the effort it takes to get all those volunteers and organize the classes and get the materials together. I’m fortunate that I’ve worked with a great group of volunteers who’ve been so enthusiastic. I went away on sabbatical and it carried on. It’s their program now,” Wertheim says.
Jessica Kellner is coordinating editor of The Herb Companion.