Seven-year-old Annabelle Kenchiova is crouched down, a determined look on her face as she stretches to reach ripe, red cherry tomatoes from a plant in a bed adjacent to the Kid’s Corner area of the Ligonier Community Garden. It doesn’t take long until she’s joyfully nibbling on a few of the fruit.
The innovative children’s gardening program was the idea of Judy Ridgway, who is sporting beautiful monarch butterfly wings as part of a program on the insect happening later that afternoon.
“I Just wanted to teach the children and have them get joy out of it,” Ridgway says of founding Kid’s Corner a year and a half ago.
She’s partnered with Barli Ross as co-program director for this free, all volunteer program in the garden.
“I was all-in immediately,” Ross says with a wide smile, “because when you intersect kids and gardening, you are in my sweet spot.”
Ridgway saw a need to help kids aged six through eight as the Ligonier school system has gardening programs for kindergarten and middle school students. “There was nothing for the kids in between,” she says. “So, I wanted to start something that age group could do.”
Once a week from May through August, the children come with an adult to the organic garden to learn natural techniques for planting, pest control and a host of other gardening lessons.
The garden includes three beds which are planted using the Square Foot Gardening technique and straw bales around the outer perimeter of the community garden filled with plants ready to harvest.
The plantings are lush, with zinnias luring in pollinators like butterflies, beds filled with purple, red and striped tomatoes, herbs, leafy greens, cucumbers and much more.
“I hope they get an interest in where the food that they eat comes from and how it’s grown,” Ross says of the children. “And how that interfaces with taking good care with the earth.”
One surprise for her and Ridgway is watching the parents enjoy their time in the garden as much as the kids.
“We’re teaching them from the ground up,” Ross added. “Everything about soil, light water, nutrients, good insects and bad insects.”
One of the parents took some basil home and will be bringing back fresh pesto to be served to the children on bread.
When teaching soil preparation one day, Ross pulled a tarp off the top of a compost pile, which revealed quite a surprise for everyone involved.
“It was full of snakes, they were delighted, says Ross of the children. “The parent not so much,” she added laughing.
The day starts with a gardening lesson, and often includes crafts along with programs too, like the butterfly class which showcased real chrysalis’ and the butterflies themselves. There’s been a scavenger hunt to eliminate squash bug eggs and the kids have removed some Japanese beetles too.
One fun highlight for Ross and Ridgway is watching the kids try the food they have grown.
“The joy in the face of these kids when they pick something is wonderful,” says Ridgway. “We have pictures of them jumping up in the air holding up a squash or a bunch of carrots.”
Garden benches were being filled with basil, tomatoes, greens, cucumbers and other produce and the children explored the garden, thrilled to harvest the fruits of their labor.
“The weekly bread and butter of this program is kids working in the garden,” remarks Ross.
“Whether its planting, harvesting or weeding they come once a week for an hour and a half.”
It’s obvious when watching the children, that they’ve learned through doing, how to garden.
“I like when we get to plant stuff,” says six-year-old Adalynn Proskin, who then goes on to explain that carrots are one of her favorites.
“One of the things I love about Kid’s Corner is it gives young children an opportunity to do real work and see the outcome of that,” says Ross. “I think it feels real to them, I think there’s a lot of value in that.”
As Ridgway listens carefully to her garden partner, she adds, “and they never want to leave, that’s the fun part.”
For more information or to help the Kid’s Corner program contact Ridgway at 410-533-6465 or through the Ligonier Community Garden Facebook Page.