The Junior Master Gardener program uses the garden as a classroom for children to learn about nature, responsibility and leadership.
By Anna Cairns '20 '23
Photos provided by Junior Master Gardener program
September 7, 2021
For Celeste Bartlow, a fifth grader whose favorite thing to grow is eggplant, one of the best parts of school is Gardening Club. To her, the garden has many moving parts: her classmates and friends, the sun, the water hose, the various fruits and vegetables, critters, creepy crawlies and her teacher, Tracy Henn. As a member of Gardening Club, she knows that after school, it will be time to learn in her outdoor classroom and tend to the plants that climb toward the San Antonio sun.
Planted firmly in Aggieland as part of the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service, the Junior Master Gardener (JMG) program has taken root in schools and homes across the world. JMG’s mission is to use the garden as a teaching site for academic concepts as well as big themes such as responsibility, community, critical thinking, environmental awareness and leadership.
“It’s really about using gardening to grow good kids,” explained JMG founder and director Lisa Whittlesey ’89. “Our mission is to take kids’ passion for learning, success and serving their community and foster those traits in the garden. We hope they learn about plants, nature and garden science, but the program is really about a more holistic approach to child development.”
Ready to help kids blossom? You can support the Junior Master Gardener program in perpetuity with endowed gifts of $25,000 or more or give pass-through funding of any size toward these goals:
JMG has always been an Aggie endeavor. The program germinated in Bryan, Texas, during Whittlesey’s time as an educator at the Bryan Federal Prison Camp, a minimum-security women’s prison. There, she led a gardening program for incarcerated women, of which many had children who were allowed to come for visitation. During those visitation days, inmates shared their joy of gardening with their children, and Whittlesey witnessed an unmet need for childhood gardening programs that inspired her to create JMG.
Now a blossoming international organization, JMG reaches nearly one million children annually. Roughly 70% of its participation comes from school-based programs such as classroom lessons and extracurricular gardening clubs, while the other 30% comes from events with youth organizations, botanic gardens, arboretums and summer camps. JMG has also seen a sharp uptick in online engagement as families find themselves at home during the COVID-19 pandemic, with recipes for homemade jam and DIY bug-catchers being just two of the ways that parents and children can engage with nature.
The great innovation of JMG lies in its design. Its main product is a set of curricula that follows Texas educational requirements that can easily be plugged into lesson plans for a wide variety of subjects and grade levels. Many schools also choose to create extracurricular gardening clubs, such as the one that Henn leads and Bartlow participates in.
Good ideas crop up regularly from children taking ownership of their gardens. Henn recalled an example in which her junior master gardeners asked to water classroom gardens during recess and took initiative to reduce waste from school lunches.
“I had a group of third graders last year that I called my secret trash society,” Henn said. “They became concerned about how much waste we were producing at lunchtime, so we started measuring how much trash we throw away on average. We wrote a grant proposal and received a grant for composting materials. This year, that same group is coming back as fourth graders, and we’re going to start composting and using the product in our gardens.”
After a long growing season, the students enjoy the fruits of their labor. “I like getting to see the little plants that we’ve planted over the years grow into big, beautiful plants. We got to pick cucumbers, tomatoes and eggplant, and Ms. Henn made this delicious bread loaf with them,” Bartlow said, referring to a recent vegetable bread that utilized the school garden’s produce.
Kids eating the food they have grown is part of a larger plot to encourage better nutrition and improve kids’ opinions of fresh fruits and vegetables. “There’s a lot of research that shows kids are more likely to try new foods if they’ve grown it,” Whittlesey explained. “So we try to include multiple exposures for kids: We want them to grow it, learn about growing it and, finally, harvest it.”
Across the variety of people involved in the JMG program, one constant is their gratitude. “When we need help, Texas A&M AgriLife steps in,” Henn said. “They will give us any kind of resource, and I cannot say enough how much I appreciate it. Teachers can’t do this without the support of the community.”
11-year-old Bartlow shared with us a few words of advice for aspiring gardeners. “My first piece of advice is to really enjoy the experience of it because it’s really fun. In Gardening Club, you have to work together. My friends and I planted our garden together and worked as a team to decide who needs to take care of what each day.”
Leaving us with one more important tip, she added, “And make sure the plants don’t die.”
To learn more about supporting the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service or the Junior Master Gardener program, contact Brandy Kines ’05 at (979) 458-8150 or by submitting a message through the form below.
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