Big Country Magazine
Talk to the instructors of the Big Country Junior Master Gardener ® program for a while and you’ll come away with one word firmly planted in your mind: FUN! Gardening is fun! Plants are fun! Recycling is fun! And even... bugs are fun? These folks exude an excitement for gardening and nature that they pass on to as many as 100 students weekly in the Abilene area.
Currently in Abilene, there are two active Junior Master Gardener® groups, both coordinated by Cheryl McCormick who started the first local group in 2006 along with Richard O’Shields.
The program at Johnston Elementary has been operating since 2008 and is headed up by Jean Dotson. This semester there are about seventy kids participating. It’s a big group but Dotson refuses to turn any exuberant students away. Some kids who struggle in academia excel in the gardening program, she explained. “It’s their moment to shine.”
The second group has just been inaugurated at St. John’s Episcopal School, led by Juanita Campos and Kathy Turner. This group currently has sixteen children enrolled. Campos explained that the St. John’s program is only just getting off the ground, though it already promises to be a success. The school has installed a garden area for the students equipped with irrigation and the children are looking forward to planting veggies and herbs as the weeks progress. Both groups will run through May before breaking for the summer.
These groups are part of a larger international youth gardening program run by the University Cooperative Extension network, headquartered in College Station. Although each group is tailored to meet the needs of the individual organizations, they all follow the curriculum designed by the network that teaches kids about soil, plants, and wildlife, with an emphasis on personal development. Once a child has completed each aspect of the curriculum, they receive a Junior Master Gardener certificate.
Christa Clay-Bunger, an instructor with the Abilene-based groups explains that the kids come away with a new appreciation of nature and the joy of just being outside. She says that many of the children are surprised and excited to learn they can actually grow their own vegetables to eat.
The program is not just about getting plants to grow, though: a great deal of emphasis is also placed on nature conservation and recycling. Roxanne Klump who has taught the curriculum for several years described one of the lessons about soil. She said that the kids learn what soil is, where it comes from and how to make it better. They learn about how trash affects soil and how recycling can help. One of the activities related to the recycling lesson is to have the kids construct sombreros out of recyclable materials. The kids love it, she said, and they learned about what materials are good for the soil and which ones are not.
In addition to the after-school program, many of the instructors participate in an in-school program called Nature Kids. This program consists of a series of special presentations during regular class hours that are coordinated with a school’s teachers and in conjunction with regular science classes. This year only Johnston Elementary participated in this program, but they are hoping to expand into other schools next year. This is not part of the regular Junior Master Gardener program and the kids do not receive certification, but it allows children who are not able to enroll in the after-school program to be exposed to a fun way of learning about the science of nature. A group at Johnston Elementary recently had a special lunchtime lesson where the kids gathered up all the left-over items they would normally throw away after a meal and then learned which items could be composted, which could be recycled and which could be fed to animals. They weighed the collection at the beginning and it was almost 10 1/2 pounds. Once they sorted out usable and recyclable materials, they found they were left with only half a pound of actual trash! It was great fun for the kids as they learned they certain items that came from the earth can go back into it and help make a garden grow better.
Exposure to wildlife is another aspect of the program. Kids learn to identify birds and insects and learn how organisms contribute to the Earth’s process and growing cycles.
“Learning to observe nature is a very important skill and one that is diminishing in this age of television and technology,” says Dotson. “We try to share the mysteries and joys of the natural world. One year, second grade students were able to observe a female monarch laying eggs on milkweed plants right in our garden. I was 54 years old before I ever saw that. They have learned if they are quiet as they pass by the garden they might make a discovery.”
In addition to the practical science lessons, the Junior Master Gardener program also aims to teach kids cooperation, responsibility and leadership. Because the after-school groups consist of students of various ages, all the way from kindergarten to sixth grade, there is a lot of collaboration required amongst the different ages. The older kids tend to take on leadership roles and help the younger kids with activities as well as explain terms they might not understand as well. In fact, Campos said she intentionally divides her group at St. John’s into teams consisting of kids from a variety of age groups so that they can learn cooperation and get a diverse perspective.
Of course, as some of the students get older they can learn more advanced concepts and at Johnston Elementary master gardener, Marianne Marugg, has started a group for just fourth and fifth graders who want to delve deeper into those concepts. Some of the activities she has planned for this group are creating labels for the plants in the garden, creating a garden guide that will be available for visitors, building and erecting birdhouses and repairing those that are in disrepair.
The two groups currently operating in the Abilene area are run in conjunction with their respective schools and, therefore, are not open to the public. However, anyone who is interested can start their own Junior Master Gardener group by signing up for free. The only cost is for curriculum and materials. Leaders do not have to be master gardeners and are not even required to go through a training program. They only need a passion for gardening and for educating the next generation.
As the current programs end along with the school year, Dotson suggests that those interested might seek to form a summer group. It could be a family or neighborhood group or perhaps some of the local summer camps would want to register to teach the Junior Master Gardener curriculum as part of their activity schedule.
For those seeking to share the magic of gardening with their kids this summer, but who are not quite ready to organize a program group, the Junior Master Gardeners instructors suggested some at-home activities including nature walks to identify plants and animals or starting a small backyard garden in a rectangular box. Seeds that are easy to start and grow well in the area include beans, tomatoes, zucchini, cucumbers and okra. If you plant okra, be ready to share with the neighbors, they joked.
Klump also suggested planting dill to create a natural butterfly habitat. The butterflies are attracted to the dill and will lay eggs on the plants. Kids can then observe the lifecycle of the butterflies as they hatch into caterpillars, form a chrysalis and then become butterflies!
For more information or to establish your own group, see http://jmgkids.us, or in Taylor County call Extension Agent, Robert Pritz at (retracted). You can also email the Big Country Master Gardeners at (retracted).