Growing Citizens and Leaders through Organic Gardening

December 19, 2008 by  
Filed under Blog, Front Page, Organic, Slideshow, Texas, Vermiculture, Youth Programs

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.

At the Children's Vegetable Garden. Photo: Texas AgriLife

Students at the Children's Vegetable Garden. Photo: Texas AgriLife Extension Service, Bexar County

“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.

A volunteer talks with the students. Photo: Texas AgriLife, Bexar County

A Master Gardener volunteer talks with the students. Photo: Texas AgriLife Extension Service, Bexar County

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.

A family works together on a student's garden plot. Photo: Texas AgriLife

A family works together on a student's garden plot. Photo: Texas AgriLife Extension Service, Bexar County

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?

Tending the seedlings requires care. Photo: Texas AgriLife

Tending the seedlings requires care. Photo: Texas AgriLife Extension Service, Bexar County

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.

The children get guidance from volunteers. Photo: Texas AgriLife

The children get guidance from volunteer Master Gardeners. Photo: Texas AgriLife Extension Service, Bexar County

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.

Reaping the benefits of hard work. Photo: Texas AgriLife

Reaping the benefits of hard work. Photo: Texas AgriLife Extension Service, Bexar County

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.

Julia Wasson

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

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Comments

11 Responses to “Growing Citizens and Leaders through Organic Gardening”

  1. kid #039;s vegetable gardens | Digg hot tags on December 19th, 2008 7:04 pm

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  2. Ira on December 19th, 2008 7:24 pm

    A low cost, green eco friendly, healthy natural way to deal with aphids is to make a homemade liquid from soapberries which grow on the Chinaberry tree and have been used for thousands of years. They work very effectively.

  3. Julia Wasson on December 23rd, 2008 4:47 pm

    Thank you, Ira. We had quite an aphid problem in our yard this past summer. I’ll be sure to give this a try next year.

    Julia

  4. planting an organic vegetable garden | Digg hot tags on December 22nd, 2008 11:33 am

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  6. Mattie Myers on December 23rd, 2008 9:29 pm

    i have been in the childrens vegetable garden for 3 years.it has been a joyful experience. I learned a lot about plants, insects, and the ecosystem. i have learned that the harder I work the easier it becomes and the better harvest i grow. Being in this program has taught me lifelong skills for gardening and healthy food choices. I would recomend this program for every child my age.

  7. Julia Wasson on December 24th, 2008 11:56 am

    Dear Mattie,

    Thank you for sharing your story with us. You certainly have learned many valuable lessons from the program. You’re a wonderful ambassador for the Children’s Vegetable Garden.

    Please look at Joe’s post about the Student Art Gallery (http://www.organicgreenandnatural.com/2008/11/29/bpgl-announces-new-student-art-gallery/). We’d love to have you submit a drawing related to the environment — perhaps an illustration of what you learned about the ecosystem in the CVG program. Be sure to have your parent fill out a submission form, if we’re allowed to publish your photo with your artwork (http://www.organicgreenandnatural.com/2008/11/29/submission-form/). Or, if your parent sends your photo in an email, that’s good enough for us.

    Thanks for joining us at Blue Planet Green Living. I’d love to hear what topics interest you and your fellow students. Please write to me at julia@blueplanetgreenliving.com.

    Happy holidays to you and your family,
    Julia

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