December 2013
Youth Matters

Junior Master Gardener Program: How Gardening Can Help Your Child Grow

  Meet Elmore County’s very first certified JMG class! Betty Stricker, an Elmore County Master Gardener, leads this group from Eclectic Middle School with help from teachers and some fellow Master Gardeners.

Here’s a surefire way to teach your child how to do better in school, become more involved in the community, develop initiative and help people in need: Enroll him or her in your local Junior Master Gardener program.

"So many kids now haven’t had the experience of really being around plants or growing things," said Lisa Whittlesey, a Texas A&M Extension program specialist who coordinates the International Junior Master Gardener Program. "The program is a way for them to begin to understand that their food comes from the ground, and they can be a part of growing things that will help the community."

Through hands-on activities, fun group projects, meaningful community service - and, yes, work in the garden - the program helps kids develop a love of gardening, respect for the environment and a passion for giving back to the world in which they live. Around a million kids from across the country participate every year, mostly through school programs, but also through 4-H clubs, home school classes, summer camps and more.

There are two program levels, one designed for third through fifth grades, the other for sixth through eigth grades. But they are presented in such a way that they can be adapted for kids from preschool age all the way through high school.

"It’s a great learning environment," said Luci Davis, Alabama Junior Master Gardener coordinator. "The kids get their hands dirty and learn without even realizing they’re learning."

What’s more, the curriculum for each program is aligned with teaching standards for subjects like math and science.

"For many schools, it’s an active and hands-on way to teach science," Whittlesey added. "It’s a great alternative if a school doesn’t have the money to have a science lab."

This student at Oak Hill School in Tuscaloosa is helping pot plants for the school’s big plant sale. She is part of a special needs class that has been a key element of the school’s JMG program for over 10 years.   A group of JMG candidates from Cullman County shows off George, a scarecrow made using recycled milk cartons.

As a bonus, kids who participate in the JMG program also tend to see improvements in their reading and math skills.

The benefits go beyond the school day, too. Research has shown kids tend to try to eat more fruits and vegetables when they grow the produce themselves. Plus, the preliminary results of a new study found that participating in the JMG program can help lower a child’s risk of becoming overweight or obese.

"It’s not just about kids digging in the dirt," Whittlesey explained. "It’s about improving kids’ health and well-being, and establishing good habits for life."

Those improvements seem to carry over to the home, too, with families of JMG candidates spending more time gardening and exercising together.

  Left to right, Penny Smith, a JMG leader and Master Gardener, helps aspiring young gardeners plant the demonstration garden at the Mobile County Extension office. Not surprisingly, making “Plant People” is one of the most popular JMG activities.

Equally important is the community service aspect of the program. Kids do a wide variety of "service-learning projects" such as raising vegetables to donate to the local soup kitchen or nursing home, or doing clean-up at the school.

"The program teaches kids to give back," Davis said.

Sounds great, right? Here’s how to get your child’s school involved: Visit (or encourage your child’s teacher to do so) for details on getting started, including information on teacher training in your state. (There are programs in all 50 states, plus parts of Asia, Latin America and Canada.) At the training, teachers learn how to integrate the program into their existing lesson plans and to do it in a way that gives them confidence - even if they’ve never gardened before. When the program gets underway, adult Master Gardeners are brought in to answer questions and just generally help out.

"We don’t want teachers to feel like they’re on an island trying to do this by themselves," Whittlesey stated.

The school doesn’t even need to have a garden.

"There’s a lot you can grow in containers," Whittlesey said.

Two teachers from Castlen Elementary School in Grand Bay learn to build a bug aspirator - which makes it easy to catch and study small bugs - during a training workshop.  

And while lots of kids complete the program and become certified Junior Master Gardeners (it’s a big commitment, as each child must complete 45 group and 45 individual activities), many teachers simply choose to do the activities and projects that interest them and their students.

Either way, the program works best when the whole school gets involved. At Castlen Elementary School in Grand Bay, for example, each class is required by the principal to spend at least an hour a week out in the garden. Each classroom is registered as a JMG group, and everyone works together to keep the garden beautiful. It’s a huge collaboration, and the kids thrive on it.

Whittlesey hears many inspiring stories about the effect the JMG program has on the kids who participate. Her favorite is of Andreas, a son of immigrant farmers in the south Rio Grande area of Texas, who took part in the program a few years back. His home lacked both water and electricity, but it had one priceless amenity: Andreas’ JMG completion certificate, proudly displayed on the wall. That certificate gave him the confidence to believe he could do whatever he set his mind to and that he could make a difference in the world. Andreas is now in college - and who knows what heights he might reach?

All because of a garden.

Su Reid-St. John is Bonnie’s web producer. Bonnie Plants is a sponsor of the Alabama Junior Master Gardener program.