Growing Gardeners

From butterflies to historical horticulture, Junior Master Gardeners have the inside dirt.

Written by Rachel A. Ishee | Photographed by Joe Worthem

When families gather around the dinner table for a meal, the kids may know that the food in front of them has been prepared by a parent or a restaurant — but often that’s as far as their knowledge goes. Many have never thought eabout the process of cultivating food and how it came to be on their plates.

Junior Master Gardeners, sponsored by Lee County Master Gardeners, is working to change that. Led by Donna Tucker and other master gardeners, this program aims to foster and promote a love of gardening starting at a young age. The program is open to kids of all ages, but the curriculum is geared toward third- to fifth-graders.

“I grew up with my parents having gardens, and I helped them garden as a child,” Tucker said. “Nowadays (kids) go to the grocery store with their parents and they get food from there, but they don’t know how it grows. And same thing with flowers — they think that they’re just made; they don’t know where they’re coming from.”

On the fourth Thursday of each month, year-round, kids in the Junior Master Gardener program have the opportunity to get down and dirty and learn all of the basics of gardening. From large greenhouses bursting with plants of all colors and sizes, to outdoor gardens with lovingly tended raised beds, children get to experience a full spectrum of the possibilities that come with the hobby.

Tucker and the other instructors work to keep the nearly 20 young minds engaged both in and out of the classroom.

“I’ll do power point presentations and such on rainy days but we try to do as much hands-on as we can because they like the hands-on stuff more than being in the classroom,” Tucker said. “I’d rather be out there in the garden than in the classroom, but you’ve got to do the learning too.”

Ann Chambers’ daughter Olivia has been attending Junior Master Gardeners monthly for two years now. , Whether she’s learning about types of plants or getting to harvest fresh fruits and vegetables, Olivia loves to be involved in the entire process — and the parents get some education on the side.

“The kids are often sent home with things they themselves planted while at the meetings or with plants and seeds to try their hand at growing at home,” Chambers said. “I am learning right along with my daughter and enjoying it. The instructors encourage and inspire us to try new things, and we’re excited to go back and tell them what we’ve done”

The gardens change with the seasons so the kids are constantly learning, and their interest is constantly growing.

“Last year we did a butterfly garden on the grounds,” Tucker said. “The kids walked out there and found caterpillars growing on some of the host plants, and (they) took the caterpillars home to try to hatch them. Some of them even hatched.”

Through this experience, the students were not only able to help create and watch a particular type of garden grow but also see firsthand the process of metamorphosis.

“Back in February, the kids got to plant a flower of their choice in little cup to carry home,” Tucker said. “They also took home some cuttings of a plant to carry home to root.”

They plant more than just flowers. One of the main reasons that the program was started nearly two years ago was to teach children where their food actually comes from and the process of bringing it from the farm or garden to the table. The kids also got to learn how some fruits and vegetables can be replanted and enjoyed time and time again.

“One time we showed them how to plant things that you find at the grocery store,” Tucker said. “So we showed them how to plant a pineapple and a sweet potato.”

During the warm growing season, the junior gardeners have many different plants in the ground. Right now they are busy tending tomatoes, watermelon and peanuts, among other favorite summer fruits and veggies.

Children in the program also learn some of the history of horticulture. They have planted a “three sisters” garden of corn, squash and beans. Native Americans discovered this trio of companion plants that thrive together centuries ago.

“The corn grows tall and the beans grow upwards and use the corn as a trellis, and the squash is planted in the middle to shade the soil,” Tucker said. “The beans also release nitrogen into the soil that the corn needs to grow.”

Tucker said that her favorite part about being involved in a program like this is watching kids get their hands dirty and seeing them learn about different types of plants. Sshe admits that gardening often involves some trial and error, but sees it as part of the mystery and the joy.

“Some things don’t work and you don’t know why,” Tucker said. “It’s fun to see when things don’t work because that’s a part of gardening.”

To enroll your child in Junior Master Gardeners, fill out an application at the Lee County Extension Center, 5338 Cliff Gookin Blvd. in Tupelo. For more information, visit

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