Shenandoah Valley Area Junior Master Gardener Program plants important seeds
by Laura Emery, Deputy Editor
Madison Truong knew she was doing much more than learning how to grow fresh vegetables.
“We grew tomatoes and potatoes to feed people who don’t have a lot of money. It made me feel good to be able to help others,” the home-schooled second-grader says.
In 2021, Madison, 8, and her brother, Lachlan, 6, joined the 4-H Junior Master Gardener Home School Program, offered by the Northern Shenandoah Valley Master Gardener Association, in conjunction with the Frederick County 4-H.
The program, open to home-school children, runs from March to September.
When I heard about this program being offered, I thought it was perfect,” says Stacy Talbott, mother of Madison and Lachlan.
Tammy Epperson, Frederick County’s 4-H technician with the Virginia Cooperative Extension and a member of Shenandoah Valley Electric Cooperative, says, “The students get educated by area master gardeners, and they use that knowledge to plant, nurture and harvest the vegetables in a garden and then donate the produce to the [Congregational Community Action Program].” CCAP is a non-denominational group that provides support to the at-risk and underserved of Winchester and Frederick County.
Since the program’s inception in 2010, 191 local home-schoolers have gone through the program and 8,923 pounds of produce have been donated to CCAP.
Andrea Cosans, executive director of CCAP and SVEC member, says the food pantry blends nicely with the junior master gardener program.
“It allows us to have some fresh, diverse produce for clients who wouldn’t otherwise get that. It’s a great program and we’re thankful to be a part of it. I truly believe that if you catch people at a young age, you can plant seeds of compassion, and that’s what we’re all about,” she says.
Participants are primarily from Frederick County, with some from Clarke, Warren and the city of Winchester. They are between 6 and 12 years old and receive 12 weeks of classroom instruction.
The program uses the expertise and volunteer time of up to 12 different master gardeners from Frederick, Warren and Clarke counties.
Lynn Hoffman worked with Epperson to get the program up and running in 2010. She’s been a master gardener since 2001 and loves to teach children about gardening.
“We want to get them outside to get muddy, dig up stuff, look at the worms and have fun,” she says, laughing.
According to Hoffman, students enjoy walking to CCAP to deliver the fresh produce. “It makes them feel good to know they’re doing something good for the people in the community. It’s not just about education; it’s also about giving back,” she explains.
Talbott couldn’t agree more. “It was a learning tool for my children in both life and in the garden. Madison loved the tomatoes and Lachlan was fascinated by the potatoes. When you’re digging for potatoes, at first you don’t see any in the dirt and then you keep turning the dirt in your hands and suddenly several will pop up out of the ground. It was exciting and magical.”
At the beginning of the year, cicadas were a challenge for the group, but also a learning opportunity. The students also learned about pollinators, such as the bees, and about the different types of insects that attack plants. “The kids got to pluck some of them off the leaves and learned ways to safely prevent them from infesting the garden in the future,” Talbott says.
Due to the particularly warm weather, the garden needed to be watered frequently, she notes.
“We had assigned days to go down and work in the garden together as a group. We also had great family time, spending an hour or two each week working on it on our own,” Talbott says.
If produce was available, families harvested it, then logged how much they harvested. Talbott says her children harvested many pounds of potatoes and peppers, some tomatoes and a few squash.
“It’s a wonderful program. They learn what it takes to grow food, what it feels like to put a seed or seedling plant into the ground, to nurture it, and to watch it develop through to the end. It teaches them the meaning of hard work and the importance of doing things to benefit others in your community. It’s a great teaching tool, and while it requires a time commitment, it’s a free opportunity to learn important skills,” she says.
Like the garden nurtured by participants, the program will only grow, Epperson predicts.
“We have some plans for upcoming years and we’re really excited about this program and what it can offer area children.”
Local businesses or individuals can donate to the program by emailing [email protected].