ASHLAND — Ten-year-old Ella Redford pointed to a huge cluster of cabbage leaves in the corner of a garden plot.
"That one's mine," she said.
She's also planted basil, dill and parsley this spring during an after-school garden club in Ashland.
"I like getting dirty, sometimes, and harvesting things," she said. "Because then I can make things out of them. Like I made tea for my dad with some herbs I picked."
She’s among hundreds of elementary students who have dug up dirt and put down plants at the Southern Boone Learning Garden.
Two clubs have been meeting each week for a seven-week session, a Tuesday group and a Thursday group.
AmeriCorps VISTA member Julie Zender runs the program with the help of several volunteers. They oversee groups of third through fifth graders for two hours, as they tend the plots — planting, weeding, thinning or whatever needs to be done that day.
An afternoon in the garden
The garden lies next to a fence near Southern Boone Elementary and Southern Boone Primary schools, off Highway 63 South.
Ella trots past picnic tables and plant beds to the herb section, trowel in hand, eager to plant a row of dill. She and another girl set to work, digging into the damp, hard ground and dropping the thin, wiry plants into their holes.
"Oh shoot, I forgot to fertilize this one," she says, sprinkling the pungent, "rotten fish" smelling powder to one of the plants.
Ella joined the club because she liked the bright green Learning Garden shirts her mother, Kelly Redford, bought through her landscaping business. Then Ella discovered she actually liked planting, harvesting and being outside.
"It's funny, because from a mom’s perspective, she'll say 'I don't want to go to garden club today,' but every time I pick her up — 'Oh I did this and I did that, and I had such a good time,'" her mother said.
Ella has visited the garden with her elementary school classmates for the last three years, but this is her first time in the after-school club.
Her third-grade class visited once for a math lesson. The students drew arrays as garden plots, used Popsicle sticks in a patch of earth to mark how many plants would go in each row and column, then planted them according to their drawings.
In mid-May, she visited the garden with her fourth-grade class to plant sweet potatoes.
By the end of garden club, Ella is chopping turnips to drop into plastic bags, along with bundles of kale, before passing them around to the 12 students who attended that day.
As she takes a break, Zender shouts to the students to get their attention so they can clean up.
"D-E-N," they yell back.
Just scratching the surface
Jenny Grabner co-founded the learning garden with Lesli Moylan in fall 2007, and the garden has since grown to serve every elementary-aged student in Southern Boone School District.
Grabner tries to have each classroom visit the garden at least once a semester — roughly 750 to 800 students, she figures.
Sometimes, students spend time working the soil. Other times, teachers weave classroom lessons into garden activities.
"It's just one more way for at least some of their kids to get it even more, or for the light to go on," Grabner said.
In 2012, the Missouri Foundation for Health gave the Learning Garden a five-year, $475,000 grant that funds a small staff.
The money that doesn't go to staffing pays for teacher workshops to expand the garden’s reach to middle and high school students, and to help facilitate a community partnership, Grabner said.
Liz Austin will be teaching second-grade summer school this year, and her goal is to see how far she can push the garden into the curriculum — ideally, they'd spend time there every day.
"I think we've just scratched the surface of what we can do with our garden," she said.
Learning and having fun
For the last 15 minutes of garden club, the students and volunteers gather around a circle of benches to pass around a long-necked "talking gourd." As they pass the gourd around, each one talks about a favorite part of the afternoon.
Volunteer Mark Zacher tells them they aren’t allowed to say "everything" as an answer.
"To me, it's just the everyday gratification that I get of working with the kids. I love to see the interaction that they have and learning something new, or just having fun," he said of his volunteering experience.
As the 10 students pass the gourd, they offer up activities like weeding, cleaning straw from the strawberry patch or eating sunflower seeds — that day's snack. Food seems to be a popular choice.
As Ella takes the gourd, she lists planting herbs, thinning kale and the snack.
Not "everything." But close.
Supervising editor is Jeanne Abbott.