Yearly gardening project is always popular with kids
HENNEPIN — A popular program for the past eight years at Putnam County Elementary School proves as much can be learned outside the classroom as inside.
During these years, fifth-graders have begun their new school year with “Gardening: Seeds to Harvest,” a cool-weather outdoor gardening project sponsored by the University of Illinois Extension in conjunction with 4-H and the Illinois Valley Herb Guild.
Master Gardeners pay weekly visits over the course of six weeks to guide the students through the entire process of growing a successful garden. Topics covered include garden preparation, soil conditions and types, weeds, good and bad insects, fruits and vegetables, and harvesting.
“Our Master Gardeners are here to teach you about gardening, and for the next six weeks they will come visit you each week to help you plant a garden, weed a garden and watch your garden grow. Then you’ll get to eat your garden,” said Anne Scheel, program coordinator with the U of I Extension and 4-H.
She then turned the program over to Master Gardeners/Naturalists Sharon Gallup, Barb Dahlbach, Gay Kyle, Connie Stetson, Sandy Miller, Francis Morse and Amy Moore, who then directed the class outside.
Dalhbach said she’s been impressed by the number of students she’s met in public, often several years later, who seem to remember everything they’ve learned from her about gardening.
“Once there was a boy at one of my library programs who I thought I was going to have to ask to sit down. I was afraid he was going to give away all of my information before I’d even started the program because he’d remembered everything,” she said.
Dahlbach told another story of a student who told her how thankful her grandfather was after she’d been able to use what she’d learned in class to plant and maintain his garden for him after he’d gotten sick.
“She did it all by herself, and that meant more than anything to him. He was so proud of her,” she said.
Several of the students in Josie Hall’s class have previously experienced gardening with their families and already know the pleasures of growing their own food.
“I like touching the dirt and especially getting to eat the broccoli after we grow it; it’s my favorite,” student Brooklin Brown said.
As the students gathered around the three small box gardens, one for each fifth-grade class, the Master Gardeners wasted no time in getting to work. Weeding was, unsurprisingly, the first task the class faced.
The instructors identified the weeds within the garden for the students, taking care to protect the herbs still thriving from last year’s planting. One featured a bushy growth of mint and the others chives.
“Are we going to spray? No, we’re going to have an organic garden, so that means everyone’s going to use their hands,” Gallup told the students.
But with many hands, the work went quickly.
Students then added fresh soil to the bed, breaking up the large pieces and spreading it evenly. They were then instructed how to prepare the soil for seeding, where and how to plant, and how to make a straight and labeled row.
Gardens have typically featured crops of mixed lettuces, kale, Swiss chard, radishes, spinach, onions and snow peas. Teachers select two students a day to go outside and water the garden between visits from the Master Gardeners.
At the end of the program, the vegetables and herbs will be harvested, cleaned, taste tested, rated and then made into a salad for the students to enjoy.
“I like that this is a hands-on program that they can easily relate to. It gets them out of the classroom, and it’s also good for them to be able to learn from other people. They always enjoy it,” Hall said.
After several years with the elementary school program, as well as with the growing success of their other community gardening programs, the Master Gardeners are seeing their work blossom. Each year, they see more children who have some gardening experience and who are always eager to learn more.
“We appreciate that we have the opportunity to work with other organizations in our community. The U of I Extension office brings their expertise and engages students in hands-on activities that provides our students with a priceless lifelong skill they can benefit from for the rest of their life,” PCES Principal Courtney Balestri said.