January 12, 2011

4-H Gardening Growing Strong

Jean Rogalsky, 4-H Agent, Pinellas County Extenison 

Nationally, Americans are once again discovering the joys of home vegetable gardening. Whether it is the downturn of the economy, Michelle Obama’s White House garden, or the emphasis today of buying local produce, vegetable gardens are popping up in yards, schools, and community gardens.

According to a 2009 survey of the National Gardening Association (NGA), seven million more households are participating in home vegetable gardening than last. This is an increase of 19% over 2008 and means that 37% of all United States households are doing some part of their own food production. The reasons given ranged from quality and taste to cost and food safety.

The new gardeners are a cross section of United States demographics. The National Gardening Association report concludes that “There are few other outdoor activities where virtually every demographic group is so well represented, no matter what their age, education, income, marital status, household size, gender, or regional location.”

While the focus of the NGA survey was on adults, 4-H and youth gardening is also on the rise. In Pinellas County, youth have the option of using their home vegetable garden as their 4-H project. Since this is an urban county, and many families don’t have room in their yards for a vegetable garden, many youth choose to join the Ochs Garden 4-H Club. The Ochs 4-H Garden Club is a solid model for urban 4-H programming. Instead of backyard gardens, youth come to the Ochs 4-H Educational Center (located at 14644 113th Avenue N., Largo) to tend to their own 10 X 12 foot garden plot. This gardening program was started 20 years ago and has never been as popular as it is now. There are currently 60 children enrolled in the club. Each child works in a garden plot and each has the opportunity to select a related 4-H project book to accompany their work. Using University of Florida recommendations, this 4-H Agent, Master Gardeners, and 4-H volunteers instruct the children in how best to manage their garden plot. In this program, the children learn more than sound gardening practices; they learn to eat new vegetables. Along with the usual beans, peas, and tomatoes, there are community plots with Swiss chard, kohlrabi, New Zealand spinach, and kale. Often, families learn together to try and like something new.

Pinellas elementary schools are using gardens as teaching tools for hands on science class. High Point Elementary and Fuguitt Elementary schools have maintained vegetable gardens for the past two years, maintained by interested parent volunteers and teachers. Classrooms take turns planting, weeding, and watering.

Afterschool programs are also incorporating vegetable gardening into their programs. The Greater Ridgecrest Area Youth Development Initiative (GRAYDI) has started a new 4-H afterschool club focusing on gardening. There are twenty youth in the club gardening in five raised beds. The group has already learned how to plant seeds and transplants, understand plant families, and which bugs are beneficial, and which are harmful to gardens. As the youth work in the garden, they learn what the vegetable plant looks like and which part of the plant we eat.

While working with youth gardeners, it becomes evident that the benefits of gardening go beyond the resulting fresh produce or exercise time outside. Children working together in a garden learn organization skills, sharing, record keeping, persistence, patience, and the importance of planning. It is no wonder that interest in gardening continues to grow.

National Gardening Association:

Florida vegetable garden guidelines:

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