Cooperative Extension program offers children a chance to grow

Posted Aug. 20, 2010, at 4:59 p.m.

Ellsworth fourth-grader Olivia Robidoux thinks vegetable gardening is fun. Last year, she helped her parents, Raymond and Rhyne, in the family garden, but this summer Olivia has a garden of her own. She is one of nine participants in the University of Maine Hancock County Cooperative Extension program Kids Can Grow.

Olivia enjoys talking about her garden, a raised bed measuring 3 feet by 4 feet and carefully divided into 12 square-foot sections with twine, each section growing a different crop. Along with her adult mentor in the program, Master Gardener Pam Skinner, Olivia took me on a tour of her garden this past week.

It is amazing how much food can be produced in 12 square feet. The main heads on Olivia’s broccoli plants had been harvested already, but she pointed out that smaller side heads were nearing the edible stage. Beet and Swiss chard seedlings filled a space where early season peas had been growing. Cucumbers, bell peppers and bush beans were flowering. The leaves of her onion plants were bent to the ground, turning brown, and Olivia stopped the tour long enough to pull a handful of onions. Smiling, Olivia mentioned that her older sister, Cassidy, really liked onions.

Olivia is growing celeriac, a close relative of celery. Earlier in the season, Pam gave her small transplants to grow, and now the plants are producing foot-tall stalks from a swollen base. Pam broke off a stalk and we each took a bite. Olivia, who loves green, leafy vegetables, did not hesitate to try this new one.

In addition to taking her first steps down the road of gardening as a lifelong, healthful hobby, Olivia is learning about the natural world from her garden. For example, marigolds take up two sections of her garden, and when I asked Olivia why she was growing them, she explained that they deter insects that otherwise would feed on the edible crops.

Kids Can Grow is an experiential youth gardening program developed in 1999 by UMaine Extension faculty in York County. Since then, more than 280 York County children have successfully completed the program, gaining knowledge of gardening, nutrition and food safety.

This is the first year of Kids Can Grow for Hancock County, where Extension educator Marjorie Peronto has brought together local children in grades three through six, their parents and Master Gardener volunteers serving as adult mentors, in a true community-based program. In addition to the garden bed at each child’s home, teams of participating children have constructed beds at the Extension office site in Ellsworth, where they meet once a month, April through August, for an afternoon of activity-based learning.

Children learn about soils and worms, garden maintenance (weeding, feeding, watering), cool- and warm-season crops and insects (both herbivores and predators). And they learn about nutrition — why it is important to eat veggies.

They also learn about local hunger. Food harvested from the garden beds at the Extension office will be donated to the neighborhood food pantry as part of Extension’s Plant a Row for the Hungry program, and the kids will donate some of the garden’s harvest in person as they visit a local pantry.

Kids Can Grow participants are considered members of a special 4-H club and, in this capacity, enter exhibits at their local fairs’ Kids Can Grow displays.

During my tour of Olivia’s garden, Pam Skinner offered insight on the role of the adult mentor. As Master Gardener volunteers, mentors shares their knowledge of gardening with the kids, providing a personal point of view about every aspect of the garden and healthful eating. Mentors also provide opportunities for the children to interact with adults in a different setting, affording a wholesome, healthful, calm introduction to the adult world.

Rhyne, Olivia’s mom, values the opportunity for peer group work and the insight into hunger issues that the Kids Can Grow program offers her daughter.

Olivia told me that she plans to expand her garden next year, growing more of her favorite veggies, including Swiss chard, cucumbers, peas and broccoli.

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