(10/29/18) MONROE, La. — More than gardens are blooming in Ouachita Parish as LSU AgCenter experts join Northeast Louisiana Master Gardener volunteers to support flourishing community partnerships in area school and neighborhood gardens.
“Gardening is a great way to build partnerships in the community and get people involved; it’s a win-win,” said AgCenter horticulture agent Kerry Heafner. “There is a tremendous number of folks who are doing things out in the community, and it has been a great way to funnel volunteer work into these local projects.”
Collaborations with the Children’s Coalition for Northeast Louisiana community garden and the Shady Grove Elementary School garden project have offered many opportunities for partnerships, Heafner said.
“The LSU AgCenter has been instrumental in providing the skills and knowledge we need to have a garden that thrives,” said Children’s Coalition executive director Lynn Clark.
Located in downtown Monroe at 117 Hall Street, the model outdoor learning classroom includes gardens with 25 raised beds, a playground and a gathering place for children, parents and early childhood educators to learn how to promote positive family interactions.
“It has really been a powerful partnership,” Clark said.
Since the first planting of hot-weather vegetables in June 2018, all harvested produce has been used in educational activities and the Early Head Start feeding program for 134 children in 10 classrooms throughout the community, Clark said.
On the third Saturday each month, the Children’s Coalition sponsors Super Saturday, an outreach program held in the garden. The event consistently draws more than 100 youth and adults and a host of community partners who provide learning activities designed to promote health and nutrition, physical activity and family play.
AgCenter nutrition experts present food demonstrations and nutrition lessons, while 4-H agents and 4-H teens assist with outdoor games and general garden maintenance. Volunteers with the Northeast Louisiana Master Gardener Association sponsor general garden education programs for youth and adults.
“This is a true regional partnership for us,” said AgCenter nutrition agent Markaye Russell.
Encouraging families with children to eat together, consume fresh vegetables and try new things is the goal of the AgCenter nutrition educational outreach, she said.
“When children are hands-on in the garden, they are thrilled to get to pick and see the produce prepared, and they are more motivated to try new foods,” Russell said.
AgCenter West Carroll Parish 4-H agent Alayna Jackson and 4-H member Kevin Albritton recently brought yoga games and worked with youth in the garden.
Albritton, a 4-H shooting sports ambassador, said he was inspired to take part because he likes helping others and wants to expand his leadership skills.
Shady Grove Elementary School began work last spring on a sustainable school garden that will serve as an outdoor classroom for science, nutrition and physical activity lessons, said AgCenter nutrition agent Cathy Agan.
Six raised beds are dedicated for the Bonnie Cabbage educational program, a nationwide scholarship competition designed for third-graders that awards $1,000 for the largest cabbage, said Dvawn Maza, special education teacher and school garden coordinator.
Another 12 garden beds will provide hands-on science and math activities for each of the other grade levels, Maza said.
The school participated in the program last year, but the children had to grow their plants at home. This year the school garden allows teachers to use the project for enhanced learning experiences as students care for their plants until spring harvest.
Heafner showed third-grade students how to plant their own cabbage, which they carefully marked with a wooden stake labeled with their name.
“Besides the cabbages, other classes will be planting cold-season crops such as broccoli, cauliflower, turnips, mustard greens, carrots and radishes, and eventually we will get some fruit trees out here,” Heafner said.
Master Gardener volunteers have assisted with the gardens by filling beds with soil and adding amendments and plan to help with educational lessons in the garden, he said.
An active group with more than 150 members, the Northeast Louisiana Master Gardener group works in tandem with AgCenter staff to help grow the projects that are helping to revitalize Monroe and West Monroe, he said.
“One thing I emphasize in Master Gardener classes is that it is a volunteer organization,” Heafner said.
The group also maintains the Louisiana Super Plant demonstration garden at the pavilion at 7th Square Complex located adjacent to the farmers market in West Monroe, as well as landscaped beds at the Louisiana Purchase Gardens and Zoo and the Chenault Aviation Museum in Monroe.
Revitalization projects are pulling in more volunteers, and many are enrolled in AgCenter Master Gardner classes and applying the work they are doing toward volunteer hours needed for the program, Heafner said.
LSU AgCenter horticulture agent Kerry Heafner demonstrates transplanting cabbages to Shady Oak Elementary School third-graders hoping to grow the largest cabbage and win a scholarship. A section of the school’s new educational garden project is being dedicated for the Bonnie Cabbage project where all third-grade students are growing their own cabbage plant. Photo by Karol Osborne/LSU AgCenter
LSU AgCenter Ouachita Parish nutrition agent Markaye Russell prepares fresh okra for tasting at the Children Coalition’s monthly Super Saturday event. AgCenter experts in nutrition, youth development and horticulture partner with the coalition to promote educational outreach programs for area youth and families. Photo by Karol Osborne/LSU AgCenter