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Learning by growing: Veggie garden a teaching tool for Swain students

Learning by growing: Veggie garden a teaching tool for Swain students

A summer of hard work is paying tasty dividends for some kids in Swain County 4-H — dividends paid in the form of tomatoes, corn, peppers, beans and zucchini.

This year was the first for a 4-H learning garden located at Southwestern Community College’s Swain Center, and according to Jennifer Hill — a 4-H extension agent with Swain County Cooperative Extension — it was a success.

“It’s hard work to farm and grow food,” Hill said. “I think if they understand how hard it is to grow the food, they might have more respect for the food and not waste as much, and try some new things.”

The students, ranging in age from kindergarten to fifth grade, began their garden in March, planting the seeds in trays and using popsicle sticks to measure the planting depth. When growing season arrived, they planted the seedlings outside and tended the garden throughout the summer. Along the way, students learned about plant biology, the different pests that can affect garden plants and the importance of soil quality to growing a good crop. As part of the experience, extension agent Christy Bredencamp came out to help the kids do a soil test.

In addition, the students voted to make the garden organic, so they had to learn ways to protect their crop without using pesticides. They planted marigolds to deter some common pests but still had issues with Mexican bean beetles munching the leaves. Hill and her daughter Claire made frequent trips out to the garden to “smush” the beetles’ eggs and drown the adult insects in a mixture of water and dish soap.

For Claire, those “smushing” trips were a highlight of the experience.

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“Those bugs were eating our food and vegetables and I was like, ‘No way, that’s not going to happen!’” Claire said. “So I just smushed them so we could have our fruits and vegetables.”

Meanwhile, the hardest part for Claire was waiting patiently for the crops to grow and get ready for eating.

“Whenever you grow fruits and vegetables, you have to be patient before you can eat them and stuff,” Claire said. “It takes a lot of weeks and whenever they’re ready to be picked they show you if they take a little more time. You have to let them grow a little bit more — even if you’re really hungry.”

For Jennifer, it was gratifying to see the gardeners end the season with a better understanding of food and where it comes from. Too many kids, she said, think that food just comes from a grocery store. They don’t understand that every tomato is borne of months of hard work and every chicken breast is the result of an animal’s life ending.

“I think that by knowing those things, they will be healthier eaters,” Jennifer said. “I think they will waste less and be less picky with the things that they eat.”

That’s what happened in Claire’s case. Before this summer, the 8-year-old would never dream of trying a pepper — but now she eats them happily.

“It’s something she would never eat before, but she grew it and she tried it and she liked it,” Jennifer said. “I think growing it gives them a little more confidence that I can try to eat that.”

The small garden plot, donated by SCC, grew enough food to make a couple of hearty family meals, though not quite enough for canning. However, many people got to enjoy the produce.

“The produce was free for the picking,” Jennifer said. “I’d go out there and pick it, or I told the families if they wanted to come by and pick it they could just pick what was ripe.”

The days are getting cooler, but that’s not bringing the garden experiment to an end. The 4-Hers are planting a winter garden of mustard, spinach, kale, lettuce and ground cover. And next year, Jennifer said, the project will continue.

“I’m going to keep it going as long as I can,” she said. “I think it’s a good program.”

The good thing is that there’s so much to learn in the world of farming and agriculture that it won’t be the same experience from year to year. Kids who stick with the program will always be learning something new. Next year, for example, Jennifer plans to talk about crop rotation.

“We can still keep it new and fresh by changing things and adding new things,” she said. “It won’t be the same garden next year as last year.”

SCC is also excited about the project and about the potential to tie it into some of its other programs. For example, this spring SCC art student Jasmine Spencer, of Bryson City, made a bumblebee sculpture for one of her classes that now resides in the garden.

“This was definitely one of the more interesting projects that I have worked on and I loved it,” said Spencer.

“Collaborative projects with our community partners give our students opportunities to utilize a variety of skills, turning classroom lessons into real-life applications,” added Jeff Marley, SCC’s heritage arts department chair. “In an area in which 20 percent or more of the workforce is in creative employment, this is valuable experience for students planning to have a career in studio art.”

While SCC provided the land for the garden, funds for the project came from Swain County Extension’s 4-H budget.

If you ask Claire, any expense was well worth the experience.

“I thought it was fun and wonderful,” she said.

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