Gardening is not a typical summer camp activity. But thanks to master gardener Russ Gaitskill, the campers at Copper Cannon Camp in Bethlehem have a 6,000-square-foot garden, called The Growing Space, where they plant seedlings, tend to them as they grow and experience the unique pleasure of eating food like sweet, sun-ripened tomatoes straight from its source.
Gaitskill says the tuition-free camp for underprivileged youth is the “ideal venue and partner” for the garden, which both produces fresh vegetables for camp meals and provides campers with an opportunity to learn basic gardening skills.
“The Growing Space at Copper Cannon has provided the opportunity to give back, support an organization that serves our most deserving youth and build a sustainable outdoor classroom, all while doing something I love—gardening!” Gaitskill says. “That is affirmed every time I have an opportunity to observe one of the campers interacting with our project.
The former CEO of clothing and bedding retailer Garnet Hill, Gaitskill grew up on a tobacco farm in central Kentucky and has been gardening since childhood. “When I retired in 2014, I finally had the time to devote to the master gardener program,” he says, noting that as an experienced gardener, the training has helped him understand the rationale behind the techniques he’s used all his life. He also appreciates the more advanced classes, which have broadened his experience and knowledge base.
An idea that Gaitskill had been working on for several years, The Growing Space was established in 2015 with help from an $850 grant from the New Hampshire Master Gardener Association (NHMGA) and assistance from Cooperative Extension’s Education Center program coordinator, Jeremy DeLisle. This summer, the garden will include a wide range of herbs and vegetables, and several master gardener interns will lend a hand with planting and maintenance and provide a hands-on experience for the campers.
“The idea is to allow campers to see where their food comes from and experience the garden growing, so we are growing a number of ‘demonstration crops’—things they can pick and pop in their mouths, like snow peas, pole beans, cherry tomatoes, mint forwater bottles,” Gaitskill says. “Additionally, we plant fast-maturing crops—lettuces, radishes, spinach—every two weeks so the campers can see ‘growth’ even though they are only there for a week. We are also integrating the produce and herbs into the camp kitchen so kids can harvest and eat what we grow, connecting fresh produce with a healthy diet.”
Along with support from NHMGA, the project received a grant from the Harvard Pilgrim Healthcare Foundation and donated supplies from American Meadows, Gardener’s Supply and the town of Sugar Hill. Gaitskill and his team plan to further enhance the space with an adjacent pollinator garden and bramble and blueberry bushes. Future dreams, he says, include being able to collect and store enough water to supply all the garden’s needs.
Dreams aside, The Growing Space is already a valuable achievement for Gaitskill and the Master Gardener program. “I get a great sense of satisfaction,” he says, “knowing we have created an environment where New Hampshire’s most underserved kids can connect the food they eat—or should eat—with its source.”