Growing Citizens and Leaders through Organic Gardening
A group of kids gathers around a bucket at the invitation of volunteer Bob Packard. “Yuck!” says one 10-year-old, looking at the squirming mass Packard has scooped up in his hand.
“No way!” says another kid. “Worms are cool!”
Inside Packard’s bucket are dozens of red wigglers, earthworms that make gardening easier by processing vegetable matter into compost. Packard, a retired salesman and amateur vermiculturist, was recruited to teach these inner-city San Antonians about the benefits of using worm compost to grow vegetables. The kids are participants in the Bexar County Children’s Vegetable Garden Program. Each has a personal garden plot to sow, tend, and harvest.
“At first, the kids’ attitude was either ‘Yuck!’ or ‘Wow!’” Packard says. “Most went from ‘Yuck’ to ‘Wow’ by the end of the session.”
In addition to finding out that worms are pretty amazing creatures, the kids in the program learn about organic farming and get some firsthand experience with the benefits of hard work. We talked with program director, Hector J. Hernández, Youth Gardens Coordinator for Texas AgriLife Extension Service in Bexar County, to find out more.
HERNÁNDEZ: This is one of the oldest children’s gardens in the nation. It was started in 1983 by Brigadier General Dave Thomas, who was a member of the San Antonio Men’s Garden Club. The men were all ex-military. They brought kids in and showed them how to garden.
Students who want to participate have to apply. There are only about 55 beds, so space is limited, and it gets filled every season. We have two planting seasons every year, and it takes about 17 weeks for one whole season. We meet every Saturday from 9 to 11 a.m.
BPGL: Where is the garden located?
HERNÁNDEZ: We have approximately half an acre at the back of the San Antonio Botanical Garden, which is part of the City of San Antonio Parks and Recreation Department. The beds are about 3 1/2 feet wide by 12 feet long. One bed is assigned to each gardener; if two kids from the same family participate, they each get their own bed to plant.
BPGL: Are parents involved?
HERNÁNDEZ: Parents are welcome to attend, but the children do the work. Spending quality time together is a big draw.
BPGL: How do the kids decide what plants to put into their plots? Do they get help from adults?
HERNÁNDEZ: We have two growing seasons, with two separate groups of kids. We have a list of plants that we help the kids with in the fall and another in the spring. For example, in the fall, we plant cole crops, like cabbages and broccoli. In the spring, we plant squash and beans. We plant tomatoes in both the fall and spring. We also have a section that is a bonus plot, where they can plant whatever they want with our guidance.
David Rodriguez, our county extension agent for horticulture, gives the children a schematic of what’s going to be planted where. Then we work with them to plant each item. One Saturday, we could be planting broccoli and cauliflower transplants and sowing carrot seeds. Another Saturday, we might transplant tomato plants. Other than the bonus plot, all the plots look the same.
Gina Rodriguez directs the Bexar County Master Gardeners and other volunteers in the agenda for the day; she’s a great help. The educational activities and curriculum are drawn from the Junior Master Gardener program.
BPGL: Are you teaching the kids about organic farming?
HERNÁNDEZ: At this point, the garden plots are not certified organic, but we are organic. And we teach sustainable farming methods. We use organic products to control pests and to fertilize the plants. We also teach students how to do companion planting. They plant marigolds to learn about using natural plants as pest control.
When Bob Packard gave a presentation on vermiculture, the kids were very excited about the worms, and made their own community worm bin. Those worms would die if we put them into the soil here in San Antonio, so we keep them in the bin. They feed on the vegetable waste we give them. Then we spread the compost every three or four weeks, depending on how finely ground the food matter is when we put them in. It’s a quick turnover.
BPGL: It sounds like there’s a bit of expense, buying seedlings for the students to plant. How do you fund the program?
HERNÁNDEZ: There’s a small participation fee, but much of the program is funded by the Bexar County Master Gardeners through fundraisers. They finance the program when it comes to seeds and fertilizer. They do a lot of educational outreach, such as water conservation and educating the public on gardening. They also do fundraisers like poinsettia sales and other plant sales. We get a lot of donations and support from San Antonio’s green industry. They also help train volunteers.
BPGL: What happens to the produce the kids raise?
HERNÁNDEZ: They get to harvest whatever they grow and eat whatever they want. What isn’t eaten gets donated.
BPGL: What else do the students learn through the program?
HERNÁNDEZ: They learn how to be good citizens and leaders by giving back to the community. And when the kids cultivate, they see the fruits of their labors. Sometimes their “fruits” aren’t as big as in another student’s plot. That gives them incentive to try harder next year. It also teaches them firsthand about the relationship between work and reward: You really do reap what you sow.
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