Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
March, 2006
Regional Report

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At the Camden Children's Garden in New Jersey, Emily Zayas and David Henriquez construct the shed and playhouse for the garden's display at the 2006 Philadelphia Flower Show.

Behind The Scenes at the Camden Children's Garden

Though youngsters aren't running from the Dinosaur Garden to the Alice In Wonderland teacups right now, the Camden Children's Garden IS bustling. In one plastic hoop house, staff, teens-in-training, and volunteers are busy constructing their exhibit -- Backyard Adventures; Childhood Unplugged -- for next week's Philadelphia Flower Show.

In a modular building, garden educator Betsy Payne televises daily distance learning classes via ISDN to schools nationwide. Today's 45-minute lesson is Let It Rot! for a third-grade class in Union City, NJ. It's one of 30 lessons that schools can purchase (the cost starts at about $45) and interact with in real time. Off camera, walls of shelving are packed high with large plastic boxes -- each holding materials for one subject. Lessons range from the Hungry, Hungry Caterpillar, for grades kindergarten through 2; to Soil Detectives, for grades 5 and 6; to DNA Typing, for 7th through 12th graders.

This morning Betsy is ready with a colorful food chain chart and several boxes of organic materials. She's brought fruit peels and vegetable bits from home, pungent partially degraded compost, and one batch of dark humus (black gold to us gardeners). Before the lesson, Betsy sent the teacher a lesson plan including a materials list and pre- and post-activities. In the classroom, the teacher and students have collected leaves, tea bags, coffee grounds, eggshells, newspaper, and more to compost.

Other Camden Children's Garden (CCG) staff teach horticulture, science, and math in the city's elementary schools through the Grow Lab curriculum developed by the National Gardening Association.

Everyone is preparing for this year's special public events and garden festivals for schools. The school festivals begin April 7 with Spring is Here, a day of hands-on learning including activities such as Recipe for Soil; Let it Rot!; Water, Water, Everywhere; and Tree Detective. Events that are open to the public include Dino Day on April 8, Earth Day on April 22, and Arbor Day on April 28.

Youth Training
Busy in the hoop house, CCG's general facilities supervisor, Wally Ramont, moves wooden boards aside and reexamines the concept design for the flower show display. He, staff, youth trainees, and volunteers have constructed a tunnel-like willow tepee and tail, a pink playhouse, and birdhouse replicas of Camden's landmarks, such as the Campbell's Soup water tower.

Emily Zayas, 20, drives nails and paints boards for the potting shed. Now a full-time employee, Emily earned her position through five years in CCG's Youth Employment and Job Training Program. Taking a few minutes from painting the shed, David Henriquez, 18, says he's been in training for three years. This year he's in a cooperative work/school program and plans to do masonry after graduation.

CCG's exhibit and those constructing it are a source of pride, explains Michael Devlin, the garden's director. The Philadelphia Flower Show inspired the Camden City Garden Club, which spawned the Children's Garden in 1999, thanks to funds from the William Penn Foundation. Seven years later, CCG continues as one of 50 invited exhibitors.

Devlin emphasizes that the youth training is a lifeline in a school district notorious for its 60 percent dropout rate. It provides skill-building, math and science training, a paycheck, and work experience. "That's our commitment, our mission: To provide employment, to provide job training, and get kids through high school," he says.

For more information about the Camden Children's Garden, at 3 Riverside Drive in Camden, NJ, call (856) 365-TREE (8733); e-mail:; or visit:

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