Rafash E. Brew, Coolman, Denise, Robbins, M. Leron | 11/5/2005 1:46:50 AM
WEST MONROE – Students at the Ouachita Parish Alternative Center are learning where food comes from and getting lessons in life at the same time with help from LSU AgCenter agents and Master Gardeners.
The Louisiana Master Gardener program is an LSU AgCenter service and educational activity that recruits and trains volunteers to help meet the educational needs of home gardeners in Louisiana.
Louisiana Master Gardeners participate in specially designed educational activities that are part of this LSU AgCenter program. In return, they make a commitment to help share research-based information about gardening with people across Louisiana.
The project at the Ouachita Parish Alternative Center is just one example of the many activities Master Gardeners conduct around the state.
In this project, students at the center, led by teacher Kay Prince, are planting vegetables in 4-foot by 4-foot gardens. In addition, the students also will landscape the school’s courtyard.
Students attending the center have had trouble attending regular schools. By attending the center, they have a chance to obtain a high-school equivalency diploma and to receive training in a variety of other skills, if they so desire.
"Gardening is a great way to relieve stress and burn energy," said Prince, who is a graduate of the LSU AgCenter’s Master Gardener program. "The students can get out here and relieve their frustrations by pulling weeds, hoeing and just working in their gardens. It’s therapeutic to work in a garden. It soothes the mind, body and soul."
Tanya Coie, a Master Gardener candidate, agrees with Prince.
"My son has ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder)," Coie said. "I’ve found that gardening helps him tremendously. As a parent, I know how important it is to find activities young people can participate in to keep them busy, as well as teach them new things."
In addition to being therapeutic, the gardens also serve as learning instruments. Prince said the students are learning math, science and communication skills among other lessons.
"They had to measure and stake out their gardens," Prince said. "They’ve also had to learn how much dirt is needed to fill each garden, how to plant the seeds and the many other steps that have to be taken to plant a garden."
Alternative Center Principal Janet Dollar said planting the gardens is helping the students learn skills that will help them later in life. Upon successful completion of the course, each student will be awarded a certificate.
"They are learning where food comes from," Dollar said. "Many of these students don’t realize where fruits and vegetables come from. They think the produce comes from grocery stores. They also are learning skills they can use later as adults. They will have the ability to work in nurseries, on a farm or even to just maintain their own lawns and gardens."
Creativity is another skill the students are learning. Each student must make individual decisions on what will be grown in his or her garden – and how the vegetables will be placed.
Dominque Robinson, one student at the center, said his garden "will be the best." Robinson plans to plant cabbage and collards, as well as other vegetables, in his garden.
"My garden will be one of a kind," said Robinson, who has taken great care to prepare his garden for planting. "See how smooth it is? No humps. I’m going to have the best garden of them all! I’m going to have cabbage, serve it up with some neck bone and cornbread, and have a feast!"
Robinson said the class has been "exciting" and has taught him a lot.
"It’s taught me something new," he said. "I’ve learned how to grow vegetables, and it’s been fun."
Vegetables harvested from the gardens will be cooked and served to students at the center. Materials, plants and seeds for the project were bought by the Ouachita Parish School Board and donated by local businesses.
Rafash Brew, an LSU AgCenter agent who works with Master Gardeners and is helping at the alternative center, said the experience has been great for the students.
"Projects such as this help the students make attitude changes," Brew said. "The students are rewarded by seeing something they’ve planted come up and grow. This makes the students feel successful.
"Through the process, the students find they are as beautiful as the plants and flowers are, and that feeling helps them function better in society."
Dr. Ron Robbins is another LSU AgCenter agent who works with the Master Gardener program. Robbins said Master Gardener program graduates and candidates also are rewarded by helping with projects such as this.
"Master Gardeners are required to get so many volunteer hours," Robbins said. "This helps them get those hours, but what it really does is help them give something back to their community."
Louisiana boasts more than 1,500 active Master Gardeners who have completed at least 40 hours of intensive, practical horticultural training provided by the LSU AgCenter. In turn, each of them has committed to donating at least 40 hours of service to their communities. Started in Baton Rouge in 1994, the program was adopted statewide in 1997 and is currently offered through chapters based in 19 parishes – although its participants come from at least 42 parishes.
For more information on the Master Gardener program, go to www.lsuagcenter.com.