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Something remarkable is happening in schoolyards and vacant lots across New Orleans. As neighborhoods rebuild, community gardens are expanding or cropping up, many of them tended by local kids. The most prominent, perhaps, is the Edible Schoolyard New Orleans project at Samuel J. Green Charter School, the first school garden to be modeled on the one in Berkeley, Calif., that was founded by chef Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse Foundation; a handful of other area schools have also planted gardens of their own. And several community gardens around town have space set aside for young people, such as Parkway Partner’s Porch Garden project on North Robertson Street, where on Thursday afternoons a dozen or so neighborhood kids gather to tend a patch of vegetables and herbs.

“It’s a constructive thing that’s pretty simple to do,” says Alethia Picciola, art director for the Neighborhoods Partnership Network, a group that helps neighborhoods gain citizen participation. Picciola is working with Parkway Partners to help maintain the Porch Garden.

“It’s a simple thing to put a seed in the ground and get it to grow. It’s definitely something that children can do.”

And it’s something they take to naturally, even in an era of computers and video games. “Kids like to be active physically,” she says. “And they like to dig in the dirt.”
With the summer school holiday approaching, now is a good time to think about ways to get children interested in growing things. There’s something almost magical about seeing a plant sprout from a seed –– even more so when you get to eat the final product.

The real rewards can be far more lasting, however; gardening, even on a small scale, teaches kids important lessons about nutrition, the sources of the food they eat, the life cycles of plants and animals, the importance of good environmental stewardship and the benefits of hard work. “I really hope that they get the idea that when you put a little effort into something, you get a lot from it,” Picciola says.

It’s a lesson that many local kids have picked up while working in God’s Vineyard, a community garden set up by the Sixth Baptist Church in the ‘90s so elderly residents of the now-defunct St. Thomas housing project would have a place to grow vegetables. There wasn’t much interest among older people in the neighborhood, says Noel Jones, one of the garden’s founders. But the kids started coming. “At one time we had about 35 little boys running around all over the place,” he says. “I think the kids just wanted something to do after school, and this looked like fun to them.”
In time, the children of God’s Vineyard grew enough hot peppers to make sauce, which the group bottled and sold. By that time, Jones says, the project had grown from a community garden to a true urban farm with livestock, including ducks and rabbits. The closing of St. Thomas and Hurricane Katrina disrupted operations, but Jones and others have been steadily rebuilding the farm. “The main thing they’ve learned,” he says of the kids who’ve tended the garden over the years, “is that if you have a little piece of dirt, you can feed yourself and a couple of other people. And the animals have helped a lot. They help them control their anger because they have something to take care of and protect.”

You don’t need a whole farm, however, to get kids interested in growing things; a small patch of lawn or a few pots will do. Let them plant things that offer what Macon Fry, horticultural liaison for Parkway Partners, calls a “sensory experience”: that is, plants that smell or taste good, produce colorful blooms and attract a lot of wildlife. Herbs and fragrant flowers are an obvious choice, but kids also will often eat vegetables and fruit that they grow even if they wouldn’t touch them otherwise. Pick some things that grow quickly, Fry says, lest the young ones lose patience: yellow squash, radishes and cucumbers, for example. “Think about what kind of experience you’re offering them as much as what kind of knowledge or skills you want to impart,” he says.

The proliferation of gardens designed for kids is one of the nice things to come out of the past few years of hardship. Get the children in your life interested in gardening now, and the lessons could last a lifetime.

Photos taken at Longue Vue House & Garden Summer Camps Longue Vue House & Gardens
(488-5488, www.longuevue.com) offers a class for tots called “Summer Fun in the Garden” on the first and second Tuesday and Wednesday in June. It also runs a six-week summer camp for older kids that includes lessons in gardening. The summer camp is already full for 2008, so be sure to sign up early for next year. Registration will begin in March 2009.

Red Bluff Farm (north of Lake Pontchartrain, near Folsom)
(985/796-0452, www.redblufffarm.com) has three five-day summer camp sessions in June. Kids learn about caring for animals and crops and get to bring home flats of the things they plant from seed as well as a daily bag of fresh farm produce.

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