In the Garden:
Mid-Atlantic
August, 2011
Regional Report

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A youngster acting the role of fast-growing beanstalk in Bellefonte Billy and the Magic Beans -- an adaptation of the children's classic -- at the Bellefonte Community Children's Garden in Bellefonte, PA.

Walk Like a Whisper

Children dressing up as giant bean stalks, making toad abodes, walking like a whisper in the fairy garden. May I join you, please, in the The Bellefonte Community Children's Garden in central Pennsylvania?

When Lisa Duchene, garden co-coordinator, described the magic happening in their community children's garden, I imagined myself as Peter Pan flying there in a sprinkle of fairy dust. (Do children today know about Peter Pan?)

I'd land behind the Centre County Library and Historical Museum to play in the alphabet and animal gardens, the fairy garden and village, the edibles and herb gardens. And nibble tender spring greens with the child gardeners at their Salad Party.

The magic and fun are means to an end, Lisa explains. "A children's garden is not there to just be pretty and produce. Its mission is to teach and for the kids to really have a great experience in the garden, to help children connect with nature...We talk about worms or butterflies and the connection just happens."

The means to connection is powerful, volunteer-driven programming, she says. The season begins with the Spring Growing Session with two second-grade classes from Bellefonte Elementary School. This instructional program is one hour weekly for seven weeks during the school year.

Each of thirty-seven children has a little garden. That sense of ownership motivates them and enriches this natural experience. "They are so eager to check their own plots, that's the first thing they do," says Lisa. "They're looking at the worms, the soil, the bugs. They check their plants."

Children plant their lettuces, then they harvest and eat their greens. "At the Salad Party we hear, 'I like that spinach. I didn't know I liked spinach.' They go back for more," Lisa says.

Mini-lessons introduce science topics -- companion planting, butterfly habitat, pollination, water conservation, herbs, good bugs and bad bugs, fungi, caterpillars.

Seed germination gives children the opportunity to be plant detectives. What DOES a seed need to germinate? If two weeks have past and nothing's come up, they investigate. Why is the seed not sprouting the way we think it should? Is there enough or too much moisture? Is the temperature too hot or too cold? What about oxygen?

"Sometimes you do everything right, but the bird took the seed," Lisa adds. "This way they get an understanding of gardening."

At Saturday programs, kids bring their families. "That's all about fun," says Lisa. "When they have a great time in the garden, enjoy a hands-on activity, that's golden. They'll come back."

July was Frogs and Toads. A Master Gardener in plant pathology at Penn State brought toads, snakes, lizards, and newts from his department. Besides learning why toads are good for the garden, children made toad abodes from clay pots.

"We're so lucky this year to have Pennsylvania State University Master Gardeners in the Agriculture College who bring guest speakers," Lisa notes. The garden is a partnership of the Bellefonte Garden Club, the Penn State Extension Master Gardeners, and the Centre County Library.

Encouraging children to enjoy and touch the garden is a "huge concept," she says. Until now they've been told not to pick the flowers, not to step in the flower bed. "We keep teaching that as long as you're safe and respectful here, this is YOUR garden. You can do anything here."

Borrowing Rosalind Creasy's idea of people places and plant places, Lisa explains expectations this way. "When you're on a people place like a path, you can jump up and down. Where you're in a plant place, like the fairy garden, you have to walk like you're whispering. Watch where your feet go. Move quietly. Move gently. Now show me how you do that. They get it."


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