On what used to be a caliche parking lot in one of the toughest neighborhoods of San Antonio, 205 fourth and fifth graders now plant, care for and harvest vegetables in spring and fall at the Avenida Guadalupe Garden. Under the leadership of Master Gardeners Jerry Herrera and Joe Medellin, these youths monitor drip irrigation systems in 20 raised-bed gardens and reap harvests of broccoli, beans, greens, lettuce, onions, peppers, squash, tomatoes and other vegetables -- along with a newfound respect for the earth and for themselves.
One of the sponsors of the garden, the local TV station KSAT, regularly films gardening shows at the site -- a change from what used to be newscasts of drive-by shootings in the area. Another sponsor, NationsBank, recently contributed funds for 10 more 4'x 40' raised beds with drip irrigation.
At another inner-city site in San Antonio, 30 juvenile offenders (ages 15 to 18) constructed a large neighborhood vegetable garden and served as mentors for some 70 eight- to 13-year-olds. Before the garden became a reality a year ago, Rodriquez Park held the distinction of being the most vandalized park in the entire county. Graffiti and equipment thefts were rampant.
Now, instead of loitering at local hangouts on Saturdays and after school, at-risk youths learn about gardening, nutrition and the environment from Master Gardeners and grow and harvest their own vegetables. Pairing older kids who have gotten into trouble with younger ones who haven't may seem like an odd match, but it didn't work out that way. Vandalism is way down, and police officials are so impressed with the results that they are funding more gardens in other hard-hit neighborhoods.
What's going on here? Like any other large American city, San Antonio has its share of social malaise. Gang violence, drug use, teen pregnancies, school dropouts and vandalism are all part of the scene. But there's another force at work here, too: gardening. Thanks to the efforts of some dedicated Maer Gardeners and their partner organizations, it's making a difference.
Bexar County, which includes the city of San Antonio, is home to one of the most active Master Gardener chapters in North America. In this mild climate, gardening is a year-round activity, and 300 volunteers in Bexar County log more than 21,000 combined hours of public service a year.
The main focus of the five-year-old group is youth gardening, for good reason: Community leaders in San Antonio have discovered that gardening is an effective tool for motivating kids to learn, to stay in school, and to have pride in themselves and in their community.
The Classroom Gardens Program
The majority of the 10,000 children that garden each season in San Antonio do so through the Classroom Gardens program. Five years ago, Master Gardener Norman Edwards, with the encouragement of teacher Paul Gates at San Antonio's Madison Elementary School, arranged a partnership with the San Antonio Independent School District to establish eight new gardens every fall at inner-city schools, with the intent to eventually have gardens at all 65 schools in the system.
Using Paul Gates's third-grade classroom garden as a model, the Master Gardeners went to the most densely populated areas of the city and established raised-bed gardens, provided soil, plants and seeds, and matched a Master Gardener volunteer with each school. The program was so popular that other school districts in the county asked to participate. To date, 133 schools are gardening, with 15 more schools added each semester.
For two hours per week from September to Thanksgiving and from February to May, the students plant, water, weed, measure plant growth and identify weeds and pests. A 12-week gardening curriculum and planting schedule is provided for both spring and fall, with the spring program designed to be completed before school is out for the summer, and fall plants selected to beat the late November freeze.
Each semester, the Master Gardeners conduct trainings on basic and advanced gardening techniques, give presentations as needed on pest or plant problems, and provide plants and seeds. The students' work with plants is integrated into the school curriculum through journal writing, charting and measuring growth, drawings and artwork, cooking, field trips and library research, to name a few. As teacher Karla Detrick reported, "It was our science class, but also applied to everyday living -- nutrition, economics, routine care -- and social studies (jobs, farms, field-to-store cycle)."
Reaping the Harvest
The Bexar County Master Gardeners and its partner, the Texas Agricultural Extension Service of Bexar County, got involved in youth gardening to expose urban children to a life-long hobby they can love. But the program is producing more than new gardeners. Results from a preliminary university study indicate that children participating in the gardens have better school attendance, and their parents are more active in school activities as well. The youth gardeners have made better progress in science and environmental studies, too.
"Lessons of water, light, nutrients, temperature and balances with pests came alive through the hands-on experiences," noted one of the teachers. Teacher Helen Campos-Sanchez added, "You can see the success of the program in the pride of my students as they exhibit their vegetables to other grade levels. The many lessons in science, math, health, social studies and language arts are further enhanced by a cooking/eating lesson that's shared and savored with other classes." Other teachers commented on their students' "sense of ownership, feelings of accomplishment, and increased responsibility."
The goal now is to involve all 19,000 third-grade students (700 classes) in the Classroom Gardens program within the next five years. If the success of the Master Gardeners to date is any indication, that day won't be far off.
Calvin Finch is the County Extension Agent-Horticulture for Bexar County, Texas. If you would like more information about the youth gardening programs of Bexar County, write to Youth Gardening, Texas Agricultural Extension Service, 1143 Coliseum Rd., San Antonio, Texas 78219.