From the ground up

Published 11:13 pm Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Local gardeners agree that there's nothing quite like the flavor of fresh-from-the-garden fruits and vegetables. -Photo by Rebecca Keeling-Gagnon

Gardening success begins when you’re young

There’s a reason avid gardeners are said to have green thumbs. For many, they’ve been doing it for so long, the act of growing plants is as much a part of them as their thumbs.

For example, a fond memory of picking blackberries at a friend’s house, coupled with growing up tending to a garden, drove Sally Smith to cultivate berries, asparagus and a variety of vegetables at her home in North Suffolk.

“We’d have to get up early to weed the garden before school,” said Smith, who’s working towards her Master Gardener title.

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For Jeff Hancock, a Master Gardener and retired Marine who also lives in Suffolk, gardening was just a way of life for a family of farmers who grew up in Nebraska.

“Growing up on a farm, we grew all of our food,” he said.

But times are changing.

More and more, kids are losing touch with their roots. Some children can’t even identify what a tomato looks like, despite the fact that it is the key ingredient in ketchup, pizza and other kid-friendly foods.

But across the country, and in Suffolk, gardeners are seeking to change that.

Master Gardener Pam Courtney didn’t grow up gardening. She says her mother didn’t have the time to corral the kids and a garden. And it never occurred to Courtney to bother learning, at least not until her brother-in-law gave her a plant as a gift.

“He taught me how to keep it alive, and my skills just grew from there,” she said.

Her husband, Brad Holcum, on the other hand, grew up with a vegetable garden and greenhouse. Together they form a gardening team and have made it their mission to change the way kids in Suffolk think about nature.

“Tending to a garden can show kids how to nurture and to respect plants,” Courtney said.

While pursuing her Master Gardener title, Courtney, a retired librarian who worked at Oakland Elementary School, realized she needed a volunteer project. With the help of the Suffolk Department of Parks and Recreation, their fellow Master Gardeners and a Clean Community Commission grant, Courtney and Holcum set out to start a garden.

From planting seeds or bulbs, to weeks of careful watering and weeding, to the final hours before they’re given a taste of what they’ve worked so hard to grow, the children nurture the many plants growing in the courtyard at the center of Oakland’s building. And it shows in the way the kids talk about the garden.

“They are very proud,” Courtney says. “The kids say, ‘I planted those, those are my radishes.’”

In a world where it’s a daily battle to get children to eat their vegetables, it turns out that giving them a stake in their food is the ultimate weapon.

“At the end of the school year, the kids love to eat their veggies from the garden,” Courtney said. “They’ll eat it here because they grew them.”

What the Master Gardeners hope to accomplish at Oakland is to inspire a new way of life for these kids.

“We’re re-establishing some of the stuff that we knew growing up,” said Holcum.

It’s a consensus among most of the Master Gardeners, even ones that aren’t involved at Oakland.

“It’s very important that we get our younger generation back to traditional roots,” Hancock said. “If kids garden, they will get outside in nature. It’s just good for the soul.”

With his wife, Cora Hancock, the two are now starting to see green thumbs appearing in their own children.

“Our kids are getting into it now,” said Cora, also a Master Gardener. “They’ll call for advice for their own plants.”

And passing on gardening knowledge is what being a Master Gardener is all about.

In the garden

A chorus of “Me’s” rings out when Master Gardener Cheryl Pisani asks for help with the next task in Oakland Elementary School’s community garden. The courtyard is abuzz with activity as some youngsters from Suffolk Parks and Recreation’s Kidzone help Master Gardeners plant bulbs, weed raised beds and water the various plants in the garden.

“The program is great. I love being outside and seeing the kids getting into it,” said J.J. Stevens, after-school program coordinator at Oakland Elementary School and self-proclaimed plant killer. “When they hear the Master Gardeners are here, they get really excited.”

Gabriella “Gaby” Valenzuela, 6, says she loves planting seeds and watering the plants. Her tiny form is barely big enough to haul the watering cans around when they are filled to the brim, but she does it anyway. -Photo by Rebecca Keeling-Gagnon

Even a short afternoon spent with the kids in their garden is enough time to observe the positive effects the garden is having on the participants.

Gabriella “Gaby” Valenzuela, 6, says she loves planting seeds and watering the plants. Her tiny form is barely big enough to haul the watering cans around when they are filled to the brim, but she does it anyway.

“Me and my mom had a plant, but it died,” Gaby said. But her experience in the garden has made her think she can bring about a more positive outcome in the future. “We might get (a plant) to live now,” she said.

Program leaders Pam Courtney and Brad Holcum see her story as a main goal of the garden.

“The kids can take what they’ve learned and take it to the parents,” Holcum said.

“Maybe they’ll encourage their parents to grow gardens or grow their own,” Courtney said. “It’s a good thing.”

Tyler Watkins, 8, above, had no problem pointing out his favorite vegetable.

“The chards tasted really good,” said Tyler. He laughed when a fellow participant made a face, but was steadfast in his love of the brightly colored green vegetable.

The garden is really a feast for the eyes, explained Courtney. It’s fun for the kids, and when it comes time to taste, they all want to try the brightly colored food first. Swiss chard, a leafy green vegetable with bright red veins that isn’t typically a childhood favorite, was especially popular.

“You see kids come through here who would say, ‘I don’t eat radishes,’ and then they realize it’s not so bad,” Holcum said.

While Jeff Hancock’s experience of growing up on a farm isn’t feasible for most children these days, the community garden aims to create a place where the kids are exposed to nature and all it can provide for them. And for many of them, it’s about discovering new tastes.

The flavor of the day, the not-quite-ripe cherries growing from a tree in the center of the courtyard, drew the interest of all the children.

“We don’t know if they’re crab apples or cherries,” Oakland Elementary’s J.J. Stevens said, though a later inspection of the fruits revealed they likely were cherries.

What they were didn’t matter to these kids. For them it was all about trying something new.

“I tried them and they were sour,” cried Bria Miller, 10. “But I like sour,” she admitted.

The rest of the kids followed suit, leaping into the air to grab cherries off the lower limbs, an acrobatic testament to the power of the community garden.

To the table

The best part about growing your own food is eating it.

“There’s a lot of flavor out there,” says Cora Hancock, a Master Gardener from Suffolk. “Eating right out of your backyard is just perfect.”

“When you can go outside, harvest something, cook it and eat it all within an hour, it’s better. You don’t get the nutrients you get from that from something that’s been sitting on a shelf in a grocery store,” says Sally Smith, another Master Gardener who cultivates several types of berries, among other things, at her home in North Suffolk.

So run out to your garden or favorite farmers’ market and grab what’s fresh. Then use the recipes on the following pages to make some delicious summer fare.

Roasted vegetables

1 red or green pepper, cored and cut into strips

1 zucchini, sliced into 1-inch strips

1 summer squash, sliced into 1-inch strips

1 yellow onion, peeled and sliced into 1-inch strips

¼ cup extra virgin olive oil

1 tsp salt, divided

1 tsp freshly ground black pepper, divided

¼ tbsp each dried oregano, dried basil, dried thyme and dried rosemary

On a baking sheet, toss all the vegetables with olive oil, ½ tsp salt, ½ tsp pepper, and dried herbs. Roast in a 425-degree oven for about 15 minutes or until tender.

Variations: Use whatever vegetables are fresh from your garden or farmers’ market.

On the grill: Place vegetables in aluminum foil, drizzle with Italian salad dressing. Seal aluminum foil, and cook on the grill for about 15 minutes or until tender.

Helpful hint: Leftover vegetables can be used for pasta casserole dish by mixing them with cooked penne pasta. Sprinkle with freshly grated parmesan cheese and serve.

Summer salad

1 carrot, sliced thin

1 red bell pepper, cut julienne style

1 stalk celery, cut julienne style

1 medium cucumber, sliced thin

¼ wedge white onion, cut julienne style

1-2” slice butternut squash, shredded

Mix all ingredients, add dressing of your choice and serve cold.

Variations: Add shredded cabbage, zucchini or summer squash

Recipes courtesy of Jeff and Cora Hancock

Sally Smith, a gardener in North Suffolk, makes this cobbler with whatever berries have ripened in her garden. -Photo by R.E. Spears III/Suffolk Publications

Fruit Cobbler

For the batter:

1 cup self-rising flour

1 cup milk

1/2 cup sugar

1/2 stick margarine or butter, melted

For the filling:

4 cups of berries

3/4 cup sugar

3 tablespoons cornstarch

1/8 teaspoon cinnamon

1/8 teaspoon nutmeg

1/4 teaspoon vanilla

  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease an 8×8 inch pan and set aside.
  • To make filling: Mix 3/4 cup sugar with 3 tablespoons cornstarch. Place 4 cups berries in a pan and add sugar/cornstarch mixture. Add cinnamon and nutmeg and mix well. Cook together over medium-high heat, stirring constantly, until the fruit releases its juices and starts to thicken. Set aside to cool slightly. Add vanilla before placing over flour mixture.
  • In a large bowl combine the flour, sugar and milk and stir until all the lumps are gone. Pour batter into the greased baking dish.
  • Spoon fruit or berry mixture over batter and drizzle with melted margarine.
  • Place casserole dish on a baking sheet with aluminum foil to collect any spills. Bake for about 30-40 minutes or until golden brown.

Recipe courtesy of Sally Smith