San Antonio – The Children's Vegetable Garden Program, presented by the Texas AgriLife Extension Service in Bexar County, the Bexar County Master Gardeners organization and San Antonio Botanical Garden, is one of the longest and most successful youth gardening education efforts in the nation, said coordinators.
"The program began in 1983 with the purpose of teaching inner-city kids the benefits of vegetable gardening," says David Rodriguez, AgriLife Extension agent for horticulture in Bexar County and the program's administrator.
Rodriguez and members of the Bexar County Master Gardeners organization, a volunteer horticultural organization that helps support area AgriLife Extension horticultural efforts, provide oversight and instruction at the one-acre Children's Vegetable Garden located within the botanical garden complex at 555 Funston Place.
Each year, a spring and fall Children's Vegetable Garden Program is presented with 65 to 90 youth participants, he says. Programs are open to children 8 to 13 years of age from Bexar and surrounding counties. During the program period, which is from 9 to 11 a.m. over 16 consecutive Saturdays, children prepare soil, plant, weed, nurture, grow and harvest their own vegetables under the guidance of several Master Gardener volunteers.
"Many of the kids involved in the program don’t know where their vegetables come from and most have never even seen a vegetable garden, much less having tried to grow anything," Rodriguez says. "Typically the kids are fascinated with the bugs they find in the garden, the types and colors of the plants and watching their vegetables grow."
Rodriguez says the program has evolved over the years, but has kept its focus on helping inner-city youth develop an appreciation for nature.
Currently, more than 30 Bexar County Master Gardeners are involved in this program, showing kids how to grow vegetables while teaching them about nutrition, the environment, the benefits of outdoor interests and more, Rodriguez says. The program emphasizes environmentally friendly gardening techniques.
"We had about 85 kids in the latest Spring Children's Vegetable Garden Program and many were inner-city kids, including about 25 third-graders from Woodridge Elementary in near northeast San Antonio," he says.
Amalia "Molly" Martinez, a Master Gardener for four years, served as the spring program’s lead instructor.
"The kids learned a lot about things like sharing and working together and as a team,” Martinez says. “Many were afraid of bugs, so we showed them which insects were good and which were not. There was also some bilingual activity since many of the kids were more familiar with Spanish and labeled their vegetables in Spanish.”
Martinez adds that the Master Gardeners and other volunteers involved also worked well together and supported one another in order to make the program a success.
"This is one of the oldest teaching gardens for children in the country and we couldn't be prouder than to work with AgriLife Extension in providing this opportunity for area youth," says Bob Brackman, director for the San Antonio Botanical Garden. "This program has grown and blossomed over the years, and for many people it represents their earliest memory of the botanical garden."
Brackman estimates as many as 10,000 children have participated in the program since its inception 27 years ago.
"The program's structure and implementation is conducive to almost any urban area that can commit a small plot of land and provide the materials and human resources needed to teach young people how to garden," he says.
Most of the Woodridge Elementary students who participated in the spring program ending June 5 were from lower-income families and not very familiar with nature, says John Goodman, a third-grade teacher at the school who learned of the program and thought his students would benefit from it.
"Participating in the program helped show our students learn how to measure properly, which we emphasize in third grade, as well as taught them about plant science, vegetable growing and harvesting, composting, beneficial and non-beneficial insects, and even the impact of purple martins on the environment," Goodman says.
Goodman adds that many of the academic concepts presented in the program through the Junior Master Gardener curriculum were in keeping with mandated Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills requirements for public schools.
"The program uses curriculum from the Junior Master Gardener program, an extensive youth gardening initiative of AgriLife Extension," says Rodriguez. "The JMG curriculum not only teaches the kids about gardening, but also acquaints them with math and science, both areas where the United States is behind academically as compared with other developed countries."
Rodriguez says the $25 registration fee, used to purchase seeds, plants, compost, fertilizer, mulch and other materials, is extremely reasonable, especially given the length of the program and amount of instruction and hands-on assistance provided.
He adds that the fall Children's Vegetable Garden Program will take place from August 21 to December1 with applications for that program due no later than August 6.
For more information, contact David Rodriguez by calling 210-467-6575, e-mailing him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or go to the website for the San Antonio Botanical Garden.
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