Ela column

Reaping the benefits of the potato harvest.

Lynea Schultz-Ela, Friends of Youth and Nature.

Friends of Youth and Nature is a non-profit that promotes opportunities for youth and families to get outside, experience outdoor activities, and explore nature. To learn more, visit: www.friendsofyouthandnature.org.

Friends of Youth and Nature is all about getting kids outdoors, and the experience of growing a garden is one of the best outdoor adventures kids can have close to home.

In this heat and smoke from recent nearby fires, and with the current pandemic, it’s easy for the outdoor spirit to be diminished. But, it’s only momentary; time will clear our air, bring us the fall temperate climate and eventually we’ll get in front of COVID. Meanwhile, there is gardening.

Time in the garden is rewarding, meditative,and oh so productive. For young people, it’s a way to engage deeply with Mother Nature — and by deeply, we mean deep in the soil.

In Delta, Montrose and Mesa counties there are several programs that get kids outdoors and into the soil to learn and experience nature’s wonders. From schools to community gardens to libraries, programs are in motion and kids are involved.

The Delta County School District has an incredible Farm to School program with a garden at each of the eight elementary schools. The program director is Angela Flores (also an advanced math educator) who provides the energy, vision, knowledge and enthusiasm to create a successful and fun program.

It’s a comprehensive program that addresses the health benefits of growing a garden and also food insecurity within the school district. The kids learn to grow their own food and can bring those skills home to add to the food on the table. They learn where food comes from, how to grow it on their own and how working in the soil can contribute to healthy bodies and minds. Kids learn to be soil stewards through these experiences in the garden.

During the school year the kids come to the outdoor garden to learn soil science, composting, pollinators and pollination, seed saving, plant life cycles, insect life cycles and about water sources and soil erosion. Whew — that’s a lot, but it creates so much knowledge and thoughtfulness in the real life experience of the school gardens.

In the summer, the Garden Club program meets once a week for a few hours at five of the district schools. The students spend their time maintaining the garden, getting a gardening lesson and conducting experiments. For example, they might do some soil testing and discuss natural amendments to add to soil to better support plant health.

As the garden starts producing, the club members learn how to market and sell their produce at a local farmer’s market, creating a full circle of knowledge around the necessities of life. Since COVID prevented the club from meeting regularly this summer, seed and soil kits were given to the members to take home. They grew radishes, lettuce and sweet peas, which are all plants that grow and grow again when cut. This was productive, educational and placed the kids in the dirt out of doors.

In 2019, the Colorado Health Foundation provided a grant to the Delta County Farm to School program, supporting the entire endeavor and the Western Colorado Community Foundation and Friends of Youth and Nature helped fund the Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, and Compost program. This is learning in action as the kids learn about life cycles and ecosystems.

Flores discovered quickly how these lessons can grow outside the classroom when a couple of kids said they wouldn’t go to their favorite restaurant anymore because the restaurant did not use recyclable or compostable take away boxes. Being brave kids, they went ahead and met with the restaurant owner to give them their ideas. The very best thing happened when the restaurant changed to recyclable to-go boxes. Once again, it was a full circle of learning, creating thought provoking actions and long-term land stewardship thinking. To learn more about Delta’s Farm to School program visit the website or go to Facebook at Delta County Farm to School Project.

Young people don’t automatically love putting their hands or feet into the soil. They may even hate getting dirty, but the natural world includes dirt. Once they experience putting their feet into the soil, or looking at soil through a magnifying glass, or holding a worm they found coming up out of the soil, they begin to understand the fun of it all. Once they start actually looking for things in soil, and understand it’s more than “dirt,” they love it. As one child said “I played in the soil and it was so much fun!”

In Montrose County, The Valley Food Partnership has supported community and school gardens since 2013 and helped develop five community gardens and six school gardens in the county.

Take a peek at the awesome resources and lesson plans on their website such as “schoolyard salsa,” and “how big is a foot?” Get some great ideas on how to plant the seeds of knowledge and engage youth about the wonders of gardening, plant science and more. Don’t forget to check out the children’s garden and the story walk at the Montrose Botanical Garden.

The Mesa County library has developed a discovery garden for families at the Fifth and Chipeta Avenue location. Take a tour of the garden with your children and start plans for next spring’s garden projects. The library is hosting special fall garden events with topics that may include fall bulb planting. Check their website event calendar. You can also check out a pass to visit the butterfly exhibit at the Grand Junction Botanical Garden and learn how important pollinators are to successful gardens.

It takes adults as well as children to bring these great ideas to life. If you love digging in the dirt, and enjoying the fruits of you labor, consider sharing the experience of gardening with your communities youth. Not only will you be joining Friends of Youth in Nature in the effort to get kids outdoors, you will get outdoors too and benefit from the surprising wonders in our own backyard.

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