What do you get when you have an enthusiastic volunteer, a supportive principal, a willing teacher, some eager and some not-so-eager middle school students, along with some dirt, sweat and hard labor? The first Elmore County Certified Junior Master Gardener (JMG) class! After a year-long effort, 27 students at Eclectic Middle School (EMS) were presented official Junior Master Gardener certificates on May 19.
It all started when Master Gardener Elizabeth (Betty) Stricker of Wetumpka was asked to teach the basics of gardening at a 4-H Summer Camp in 2009; it’s doubtful anyone could have predicted the ongoing results.
Stricker wanted to "give back" by working with young people. After making numerous attempts to get a school "on board," she was attracted to the possibility of a JMG program at EMS. Stricker met with Principal Dane Hawk and Coach Kyle Futral.
The key to developing that activity was the garden developed in 2008-2009 by the Central Alabama Master Gardeners’ Association (CAMGA), headquartered at the Elmore County ACES facility in Wetumpka. Students at the school had actively participated in the development of the garden. The garden was made possible because Hawk had applied for and received a grant in 2008 to finance the development of an Outdoor Classroom. When CAMGA turned the garden over to EMS in 2009, the school agreed to maintain the site.
Unfortunately, at the time of transfer, no one realized just how ill-prepared the school was to successfully maintaining the new Outdoor Classroom garden. No one on staff had adequate gardening knowledge, there were no gardening tools, etc. As a result of Stricker’s conversation with the school staff, gardening became part of the study and hands-on training in the Elective Science class taught by Futral at the beginning of the 2010-11 school year.
Utilizing the JMG curriculum of the 4-H programs developed by Texas A&M, the students studied eight plant-related areas, as well as ‘Life Skills Activities,’ ‘Career Goals,’ ‘Community Service’ and ‘How to Organize a Project.’
Stricker spent many hours coordinating not only with Futral and his class, but also involved Elmore County High School’s Art teacher, Mrs. Marie Powell; Agriculture teacher, Ms. Jennifer Meadows; Youth Leadership Elmore County 4-Her Samantha Dunn and Eclectic Middle School’s 21st Century After School (CAS) program.
The art students hand-painted SWEETLIX® buckets donated by a local farmer. The buckets were utilized as container gardens in the Outdoor Classroom. Ag students made signs for the various plants. Dunn provided hands-on work as part of her community-service project as well as enlisting the help of other high school students to cut and create rain barrels, move rocks, place plastic for solarization and pulling weeds. The 21st CAS students painted rocks for the stream bed running through the garden.
The 4-H/JMG program also involved CAMGA members, part of the Alabama Wildlife Federation Outdoor Gardens Project, the efforts of Alabama State Congressman Barry Mask, the Alabama 4-H program, Bonnie Plants — who donated most of the plants in the garden, and scores of other interested individuals.
With EMS’s hugely-successful year of 4-H and JMG activities, there are now two privately-sponsored 4-H/JMG groups, two schools with 4-H/JMG activities and the possibility of a third school joining the line-up. One group is in Windsong Ridge, headed by Theresa Jones and Lissa Blankenship with CAMGA member Dawn Cermack acting as the JMG adviser. The other is at Iron Horse Ranch where Anita Thompson is the 4-H leader and Stricker is the JMG advisor. Millbrook Middle School has established a 4-H/JMG program in which Stricker is also involved as JMG advisor. There is the possibility a similar program will soon be initiated at Holtville Middle School.
Under the umbrella of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System (ACES), both the 4-H and JMG programs are experiencing impressive growth.
During the 2011 growing season, seniors from the local Community Center contributed to the students’ efforts in painting rocks for the dry stream bed, and providing information and suggestions. The seniors were rewarded with cherry tomatoes from the garden during the summer.
Recently, a newly-established pizza parlor in Eclectic utilized herbs from the garden for a menu favorite, ‘JMG Calzones,’ in honor of the students and the herbs they provide. In return, the JMG students receive free sodas when eating at the restaurant.
On May 25, 2011, Stricker surprised Futral and his students with a "celebration" for all their hard work. She invited Eclectic’s Mayor Helen Rowe to come see the garden. She offered words of praise to the students for their hard work. Powell presented the students and the school with a specially-painted JMG sign to be hung at the Outdoor Classroom. Hawk also attended the ceremony and expressed his appreciation for Futral, the students and especially for Stricker’s efforts. Many of the students expressed a new interest in gardening and the willingness to try new foods like those currently being grown in the garden. Some of Dunn’s high school friends learned about the herbs in the garden and talked about using them in cooking. All of the students indicated they were not only proud of their work, but enjoyed the opportunity to make their school a better place.
EMS saw nearly 30 students complete JMG training during the 2010-11 school year and become Certified Junior Master Gardeners. Several of those students have become members of the Regional Youth Council and serve as 4-H Ambassadors throughout the River Region sharing the importance of the program with the media, city and county offices, etc. As a result of their study of ‘Community Service’ during their 2010-11 school year, a number of these students became active volunteers when Eclectic became an emergency center following the April 2011 tornadoes that heavily damaged the area.
For the 2011-12 school year at EMS, LaKeisha Ray is teaching the 7th grade Science Elective class which will incorporate the JMG program as it did last year. Marie Powell, the high school art teacher, has become the after-school 4-H leader at the middle school. Powell is continuing to incorporate garden art activities in her classes at the high school and the 4-H club at the middle school. Both Ray and Powell became 4-H leaders as a result of the very positive experiences of students and staff during the previous school year.
There are tentative plans for ACES and Alabama Farmers’ Federation to host a ‘Farm-City Day’ in Eclectic in March 2012. Among other things, the Farm-City Day will help introduce those not living on producing farms to many of the tools and techniques being utilized in River Region crop production.
The excitement of the garden, and the lessons learned there, has reached beyond the Elective Science class to other students as they have offered to stay after school for the opportunity to be involved along with the commitment of the high school teachers who helped the first year of the program.
So, thanks to the dedication of one enthusiastic volunteer, a little dirt and a lot of hard work, Eclectic Middle School now has not only a beautiful, usable outdoor classroom and garden, they also have a special group of students – Certified Junior Master Gardeners!
In looking back, Stricker’s gardening instruction during the 2009 4-H Summer Camp has yielded huge returns in newly-acquired learning and experiences for dozens of young people in the River Region….with much more to come!
Luci Davis is the State Junior Master Gardener Coordinator. For more information on the program, phone (334) 703-7509.
Katrina Mitchell is County Extension Coordinator for Elmore County Extension Office and Phil Easter is a horticulturist.