- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 15, 2006

It is doubtful that Frances Hodgson Burnett, author of “The Secret Garden,” is the only person ever to have dreamed of hidden doors and secret bowers. For many of the District’s elementary school children, the Washington Youth Garden is the fulfillment of similar visions.

Vibrant marigolds and assorted zinnias at the base of the garden’s welcoming purple arch in the National Arboretum show passers-by that “there’s something fun and cheerful going on inside,” says Kim Rush, WYG program director.

The truth is that a lot is going on inside.

From its family gardening and cooking program, Growing Food … Growing Together, which runs from May through September, to its interactive, school-based Garden Science program, extending from January to June, the garden hosts a variety of educational activities for city children all year round. There also are supplemental programs throughout the year to train parents and teachers about gardening sciences and working with children.

Perhaps the program of greatest interest to the community, however, is the 11-week Garden Science program for local elementary schools. Garden Science provides city children an opportunity to explore the world beyond buses and buildings. It gives children a breath of clean air and a chance to dig their fingers into fresh dirt.

“Most of my kids don’t get that opportunity,” says Teresa Harris, the third-grade teacher at Holy Name School in Northeast. Holy Name’s students have been coming to the garden for years.

The first eight weeks of the gardening program begin in the blustery winter months. Students participate in hands-on classroom exercises and other lessons.

“They talk about plants and seeds and the things that they get from that,” Miss Harris says.

In preparation for planting, the students even care for a worm farm.

“They take on the responsibility of feeding [the worms],” Miss Harris explains. “I hate the bugs,” she adds with a laugh.

After eight weeks of in-class activities and learning about the environment, agriculture and life sciences, students are anxious to get dirty.

“Oh my goodness, they love it,” Miss Harris says.

Beatrice Hunter, a counselor and active participant in the education of children at Young Elementary School in Northeast, could not agree more.

“They loved it. I loved it. Everybody loved it,” she says.

Garden Science fills the life-science void in many local schools. Because of cuts in science education funding and testing for English and mathematics, the Garden Science program will supply all of the organized science education that some District elementary school students receive, literature from Washington Youth Garden says. Without a science teacher last year and this year, Miss Hunter says, Young Elementary School has found WYG a tremendous supplement to its students’ education.

“We don’t get to science as much as we do, say, reading or math,” Miss Harris agrees.

During the three-week planting and gardening part of the program, students take home recipes, sample vegetables and newly acquired cooking skills. After the program, Miss Harris says, some children talked about how they had taken their parents to see the arboretum, in Northeast, and other students return to see the progress of what they planted months ago.

“It was an eye-opener to the parents,” Miss Harris says.

Though Garden Science occupies just half of the school year, its impact on the children and their families likely will continue long after the sessions have ended. Rebecca Stevens, a teacher at Bunker Hill Elementary School in Northeast, particularly appreciates how program leaders make lessons relevant to the children, like how everything we eat eventually becomes soil once again.

“They remember that kind of stuff,” she says.

Some of the children from Garden Science put their names on the roster for other programs at the arboretum. Many grow up and send their children back through programs at WYG. One family, Mrs. Rush notes, has returned to Growing Food … Growing Together, held on Saturdays, for three years.

“They will remember it for life,” Miss Harris says. “I know I will.”

The Washington Youth Garden has been open since 1971, when it was planted, along with the Lederer Youth Garden on Nannie Helen Burroughs Avenue Northeast and Twin Oaks Youth Garden on 14th and Taylor streets Northwest. These three gardens were established by the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation, coupled with the Washington Youth Garden Council, to serve the local community, namely the children.

Because of substantial funding cuts, the Friends of the National Arboretum became a primary supporting organization for WYG in 1996. Since that time, the garden has become an active participant in the U.S. National Arboretum and the local community by donating its produce, promoting arboretum visits, and supplementing elementary education in the District.

WYG, open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., offers a free self-guided tour of 16 highlights of the garden on a bulletin board at the back of the garden. Some of the displays may be a little difficult to find, but they are all there. Children are prompted to feel lamb’s ear, pick milkweed, view the “Pot Man” sculpture, smell rosemary and crawl through a luffa and Malabar spinach tunnel at the end of the journey.

The garden has come a long way, but the possibilities for growth have not been exhausted, Mrs. Rush says. She hopes one day to have kitchen classrooms on-site in the garden, along with bathrooms and space for hosting various children’s events.

“We have some fundraising to do,” she says.

Fundraising is an ideal way for the community to get involved. Mrs. Rush encourages people to visit the Web site (www.fona.org/youthgarden.htm). Also, Nov. 5 is the garden’s second annual Dig in Your Heels 5K run to raise money for the WYG. The event is family-friendly and includes granola making, apple tasting and other fun activities after the race.

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