HARTFORD -- Tamia Gray inspected the leafy garden beds like an explorer.
"I found marigolds," the 9-year-old shouted Tuesday. "And tomatoes! ... These are all mine."
For a dozen summer campers at the Asylum Hill Boys & Girls Club, the treasures at the Huntington Street community garden are the organic vegetables and herbs that they planted in late June.
Eggplant, squash, string beans, rosemary and oregano are some of the garden goods that the children have grown under a new program that concludes next week.
An open garden day is planned for Thursday evening so campers can show off their green thumbs to relatives. Parents got a glimpse last Thursday when children brought home bags of their first harvest, which included collard greens, callaloo leaves and red lettuce.
Families are invited to harvest the rest of the bounty when the seven-week program is over, said Sandy Fromson, a board member for the Boys & Girls Clubs of Hartford. The organization plans to continue the program for future summers.
Fromson, 70, said she has taught children how to sew for the past four years, but decided to develop the gardening curriculum after learning there was none for the Asylum Hill summer campers, most of whom live in the neighborhood.
Learning about gardening, such as lessons on seeds, soil and organic fertilizing, is one program objective for the young urban gardeners. Eating and appreciating healthy food is another.
A third is "to get them to love being outside," said Fromson, who is an academic specialist for UConn's Urban and Community Studies program. "Hopefully, they'll start gardens of their own."
Asylum Hill Congregational Church's outreach program donated $100 for supplies and allowed use of two 4-by-20-foot garden plots, Fromson said. Other gardeners in the Huntington Street community garden, which is managed by the Knox Parks Foundation, gave collard, callaloo and oriental lettuce seedlings.
Fromson also recruited master gardeners from UConn's Educational Outreach Program to volunteer to help the campers for their Tuesday and Thursday sessions.
The children's work has involved plenty of weeding, which they learned is a necessary, if onerous, job because weeds crowd out the plants, gardeners said. This week's lesson is "Why Can't We Be Friends?" and examines the complicated relationship between plants, pests and beneficial bugs.
One of the campers, a lover of living creatures, was scooping up Mexican bean beetles on Tuesday so they wouldn't be killed. There are plans to introduce pest-eating ladybugs to the garden to join the pest-repellent marigolds.
"It's a lot for this age group," said Donna Stout, 67, a master gardener who also serves on the board of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Hartford. "But they understand it."
Gardening "teaches them patience ... These were teeny-tiny plants," said Fromson, measuring a few inches with her forefinger and thumb. "Even we were amazed that they were able to harvest last week."
On Tuesday, master gardener Rick Keppelman worked with Tamia of Windsor and others on a deterrent for the neighborhood squirrels that have apparently been eating the tomatoes. They sprayed a liquid concoction of chili powder, cinnamon, water and soap around the plants because squirrels hate getting the spicy recipe on their face.
Afterward, the children snacked on fresh vegetables and strawberries.
Keppelman, 70, said the campers have impressed him over the summer. "Some of the boys who didn't think this was so cool to begin with, I've noticed -- I better say this out of earshot -- they're into it."
"I was like, 'What are we going to do there?'" said Khamari Harris, 9, of East Hartford. Now, he said, "I know how to put the plants in the ground and plant seeds ... It was actually fun."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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