Teaching Boys and Girls to Garden
Sheila Steele, Kathie Breen, Sue Makowiecki, and Jeanne Johnson had different reasons for enrolling in the Master Gardener program, but today they work together on a garden venture, enriching the lives of boys and girls in the greater Milford area. All four are members of the Amherst Garden Club, Jeanne is vice president.
In 2019, Sheila, Sue and Kathie met in the MG class. Sheila was the Amherst Garden Club’s grants chair. She received an application from Mike McKnight, who heads the STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics) program for the Boys & Girls Club of Souhegan Valley (BGCSV) to fund a kid’s garden. At the same time, he asked if garden club members wanted to provide assistance. Excited about the prospect, Sheila asked MG classmates if anyone was interested in working on the garden. Sue and Kathie “joined in right away,” she says. Jeanne worked in the garden with the others in 2020, as a member of the garden club, and became a MG in 2021.
The garden was created in 2019 on the grounds of the Boys and Girls Club in Milford. Raised beds were built and “the Garden Ladies”, as the children called Sheila, Kathie and Sue, conducted weekly lessons which included planting, tending, harvesting and eating the produce. “I loved meeting and working hand-in-hand with the kids, no matter what age the kids were,” says Sue, a retired, special education paraprofessional at New Boston Central School and a 2018 Natural Resources Steward.
The program has run during growing seasons from 2019 to 2021. Up to 75 children were grouped in same-age classes and garden activities were planned around the children’s abilities. The youngsters made and ate pesto, pickled cucumbers, and watched monarch butterflies emerge from their chrysalises. With the garden so prolific, the kids frequently had raw veggie snacks and salads. Due to the pandemic, in 2020 the volunteers could not work with the youngsters. However, the four tended the garden, and the BGCSV staff used it with the children.
In 2021, the program was expanded by adding two more garden club volunteers and enlarging the space from six to seven raised beds. An 8-foot by 40-foot native plant garden was created and the children learned about native plants and toads, then made toad houses to take home. The native plot is now certified with the National Wildlife Federation.
Jeanne, a beekeeper, added sessions about bees and pollinators. She brought bee equipment and clothing for the children to touch and try on. “Each time we step into the garden with the kids, I love to see their reaction as they discover what was once were seeds … are now plants bearing fruit,” says the former executive director of a Cape Cod non-profit, environmental education organization. “They have a sense of ownership that they grew that.”
In addition to two grants from Amherst Garden Club and two from N.H. Master Garden Alumni Association, the group also received funds from the Agnes Lindsay Foundation. An anonymous donor provided money for a shed and another funded program expenses. Several businesses provided goods, such as soil and lumber, either free or at discount. The Boys and Girls Club helped with staff and funds.
Sheila, Kathie and Sue were “humbled and appreciative” to receive the BGCSV “Volunteer of the Year” award in 2019. Sheila, a retired college science professor says, “I love to teach, so the project is well suited to that. It has been interesting teaching little kids, but my grand-parenting has helped.”
“There have been so many rewarding moments while working on this project,” says Kathie, a retired software/systems engineer. She describes a moment in the garden that “really stuck with me, when one of the young boys said, ‘This is the first time I have eaten a tomato from the garden’." She also credits BGCSV management and staff for their “incredible support. They have been behind us every step of the way.”