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March-April 2011 Selected Content

Growing Gardeners - Caroline Kiberd


On a snowy January morning, I bundled up my family, filled a thermos with hot chocolate, packed a lunch, and then drove an hour north. Was it to ski or ice skate or sled as you might expect from a New Englander in January? Nope. Instead, we had gardening on our minds. Visions of veggies and plump berries and fragrant flowers crowded my thoughts. My son David, just turned 16, was headed to his first Master Gardener Volunteer class.

As a child, I watched my grandfather work magic with seeds and soil. Gardening, for him, was a way of life. Orphaned in childhood, he and his brothers kept the family farm afloat. During the Great Depression and beyond, he raised food for his own six children, all of whom continued to garden even in good economic times.

I had my own small garden and included my kids in my efforts. As in the tale of the little red hen, they fancied eating the fruits of my labor, but didn't enjoy pulling weeds, spreading compost, and all the work that goes along with gardening. David in particular, was the one to disappear when I called everyone to help in the garden.

A Gold Mine of Resources

Homeschooling families can find a gold mine of resources through their cooperative extension in the form of publications, online videos, courses, workshops, and volunteerism.

Topics include:
• Sustainable Agriculture
• Environmental Issues
• Food Preservation
• Natural Resources
• Gardening and Horticulture
• Children, Youth and Families
• Livestock
• Small Business
• Tourism
• Homemaking
• Money Management
• Forestry and Wildlife

Programs include:
• 4-H
• Kids Can Grow
• Master Food Preservers
• Master Gardener Volunteers
• Jr. Master Gardeners
• Watershed Stewards Volunteers
• Summer Camps
• Harvest for Hunger
• And more...

Programs vary from state to state. The University of Maine maintains a list of Cooperative Extensions across America.

The American Horticultural Society has a list of Master Gardener programs through out America and Canada, visit website at:

But, things changed the year I grew blackberries. David waged war on juice-sucking yellow jackets to save our precious berries. An awakening occurred as he realized there was another side to gardening, something deeper and more meaningful beyond the hard work and the dirt. He started helping both at home and in my Dad's garden. He talked about owning his own farm someday. He listened to stories about his legendary great-grandfather. He pondered the noble vocation of growing food. The Master Gardener Volunteer Program came to my mind. I'd thought of taking it myself over the years, but never had enough free time. I wondered if they would accept a teenager into the program.

David emailed an inquiry to the program director. He was invited to apply and was accepted. The class was held from 9 AM to noon Wednesday mornings from January to June. He'd be the only teen in a class of adults. In addition to class time, he'd give 40 hours of volunteer work to the community. On that bitter morning, it was hard to envision the bounty that would come of my early morning efforts, but I fought the cold to chauffeur my son to class. Through my chattering teeth, I told myself it would be worth the effort.

I dropped David off at the door of the university building. I spent the three hours with my other children at a nearby library while he attended class. When I picked him up, he hopped in our van with a 400 page binder, horticulture books, and an enthusiastic grin. That binder looked daunting. I was glad I hadn't taken the course while raising kids. David, on the other hand, was eager to dig in.

Every Wednesday morning we headed north to class. Every week, he returned to the car with the same happy smile on his face. He told me about the people he was meeting of all ages, from all walks of life. Though a diverse bunch, they all shared a love of gardening. They welcomed this youngster into their circle. His classmates told me they were pleased to meet a kid seriously interested in gardening.

Field trips were scheduled monthly. As spring waited under a foot of snow, his class visited an organic greenhouse where vegetables grow all winter long. When I picked him up hours later, I watched David chatting happily with his gardening buddies. As we drove home, he told me that greens could be grown in our climate all winter if only one has the right greenhouse. Soon, he planned out that greenhouse.

Through the course, he studied tree fruits, composting, soil composition, good agricultural practice, raised beds, insect and disease, home vegetable gardens, and other topics. He built garden models to scale. The whole family caught his enthusiasm and learned from him. Outside of class, my family visited local greenhouses, attended the University of New Hampshire Greenhouses Open House, and visited a maple sugar grove to observe tree tapping. We flipped through seed catalogs, planning the growing season to come.

In April, with the snow melting into memory, we visited a fruit orchard where his class learned about planting and pruning fruit trees. Next, his class installed a drip irrigation system at a community garden.

On a warm June day, we explored acres of the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens while David toured with his class. I gave David space to be with his classmates, but near the end of the afternoon, he eagerly approached us saying, "We're taking a preview tour of the new children's garden and they said you can join us!" The Bibby and Harold Alfond Children's Garden wasn't due to open for another few weeks. The kids, viewing the construction from afar, were already begging me to come back for the grand opening. So, we happily joined the class for the tour. The garden designers took inspiration from classic children's literature, creating scenes from some of our favorite books including Robert McCloskey's Blueberries for Sal and Burt Dow Deep Water Man. Dr. Seuss-style trees grew near a barnyard soon to be populated with real chickens.

We saw the Little Bear statue still wrapped in protective plastic, Burt Dow's dory the Tidely-Idely, and gardeners hard at work planting lupines reminiscent of Barbara Cooney's Miss Rumphius. Busy volunteers prepared for opening day. Our guide told us about the planning, construction, and future of the garden. In the distance, heavy machinery hummed and clunked. It was a day to remember.

In addition to the course work, David participated in several volunteer projects. Along with fellow Master Gardener Volunteers, he presented a program to children at a local library. They taught the kids the ins and outs of worm composting. David helped children, including his younger siblings, make their own worm bin to bring home. He helped an elderly cancer patient with garden work she could no longer undertake. Finally, David introduced me to the Kids Can Grow Program.

Kids Can Grow is a youth program offered through the extension via 4-H. Kids are assigned a mentor and are given materials to build a raised bed at home. They attend classes taught by Master Gardener Volunteers. In teams, they plant raised beds at a local church, donating the produce to Harvest for Hunger.

I filled out applications for my two younger children. David became their personal Master Gardener mentor. He taught his younger siblings, and other kids, all he'd learned. They planted seeds, learned about weeds and bugs, prepared entries for the county fair, and donated bags of homegrown produce. One day, the class met at the culinary school to bake veggie pizzas with a local chef. The kids topped the pizzas with their own produce. At home, our gardens thrived with the help of our resident master gardener.

At the end of summer, our whole family attended the Master Gardner Volunteer picnic. Everyone brought fresh dishes from the garden to complement the New England clambake. I met more of David's classmates from around the state. We enjoyed the fresh food, reminisced about the program, and chatted with fellow gardeners. Throughout the afternoon, Master Gardeners told me my son's dedication to gardening gave them renewed hope for the future.

In September, the Kids Can Grow class met one last time to put the gardens to sleep for the winter. David assisted kids as they harvested the last of the produce, pulled dead plants, turned the soil and mulched. They said goodbye to friends as the autumn leaves and acorns fell from the trees.

David guided his siblings at home as they, too, prepared their own raised beds for the winter. They harvested the last of their home crops. Their big brother and gardening mentor had instilled in them a love of growing things and an appreciation for hard work. In return, David learned valuable communication and teaching skills, not to mention patience.

Each year, David will continue to offer his talents to the community as a Master Gardener Volunteer. He's gained a foundation of skills and hands-on experience if he decides to make agriculture his life's work. More importantly, should gardening ever become an economic necessity as it was for his great grandfather, he has the ability to produce food for his family. The seed has been planted. Who knows what possibilities might sprout forth?

© 2011, Caroline Kiberd


Read more about Homeschooling and Community Supported Agriculture for Homeschoolers.


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