Giving thanks for Extension Master Gardeners dedicated to community service and youth gardening education

Michigan State University Extension Master Gardener volunteers start a new gardening club at a local elementary school.

Adults and children planting a tree
MSU Extension Master Gardeners April Dertian (left) and Donna Craig (right) explaining proper tree planting to the elementary school students. Photo by Christine Miller, MSU Extension.

The Thanksgiving holiday is a good reminder to express our gratitude and appreciation for others. I would like to give a shoutout to the hard work and positive community impact of our Michigan State University Extension Master Gardener volunteers. Extension Master Gardener volunteers go through an extensive training program and then use their knowledge to teach others in the community about environmentally-friendly, research-based gardening practices.

Many of our Michigan Extension Master Gardener volunteers statewide are excited to use their knowledge to inspire a new generation of gardeners. Extension Master Gardeners in different parts of the state have run Junior Master Gardener programs for many years. I would like to highlight a couple of recently developed Junior Master Gardener projects in Livingston County at Challenger Elementary school as examples of youth gardening projects that have developed while I have been in my position as an MSU Extension consumer horticulture educator.

I ran my first Extension Master Gardener Training Course in fall 2018. Livingston County Extension Master Gardeners Donna Craig, April Dertian and Doreen Losacco were part of that class. To become certified as official MSU Extension Master Gardeners after the class, they needed to complete their initial 40 hours of volunteer service with a horticulture-education component within the year after finishing the course.

Student potting a houseplant at home
Student potting a houseplant at home. Photos by April Dertian.

Christine Miller, one of our local MSU Extension 4-H program coordinators in Livingston County, provided the local Extension Master Gardener program with a connection and opportunity to work with a local elementary school. Miller was interested in reconnecting Challenger Elementary school in Howell, Michigan, with the local 4-H program. Challenger Elementary was interested in incorporating youth gardening education into their programming, especially since it could be connected with a healthy kids grant they had obtained.

In early 2019, Craig jumped right into the project after finishing her Extension Master Gardener training course. She put together the curriculum for seven weeks of a junior master gardener club at Challenger Elementary. She was inspired by her newfound knowledge from the Extension Master Gardener Training Course and tried to choose the most important topics she had just learned about, while also incorporating some of the Junior Master Gardener curriculum developed by Texas A&M University.

Craig, Dertian and Losacco then presented classes to a group of enthusiastic elementary school students on soils and composting, plant science and flowers, vegetables, insects and wildlife, indoor plants and trees and shrubs. Craig said that her favorite part of working with the kids was watching them get excited about learning through hands-on activities. As you might expect, these 8- to 11-year-old kids really liked to get up and move!

Students examining worms
Students examining worms. Photo by April Dertian.

Dertian then took the lead as a volunteer for the 4-H gardening club at Challenger for future sessions. At first they held another introductory, six-week session for kids at Challenger using the Texas A&M University Junior Master Gardener curriculum. Then, as Dertian and Miller realized there was longer-term interest in having a gardening club at the elementary school, Dertian agreed to lead an official 4-H club.

Dertian really enjoys watching the kids learn and grow. She was amazed to see how much they learned and how excited they were to use their knowledge. During different sessions, the kids were excited to plant a tree, start a school vegetable garden and take care of the house plants they received. Dertian also felt like she learned how to interact better with children with different learning styles, which was rewarding.

The club continued into 2020 and Dertian adapted for the changing situation by going virtual for about two months. She created a Facebook group for the kids’ parents and posted many activities to keep the kids engaged. Everyone enjoyed seeing pictures of the kids completing their projects posted in the private Facebook group. To keep up motivation, Dertian rewarded the children for completing activities by creating a picture of a garden for them. Plants and critters were added to the garden for each activity completed.

Adults and youth carry a raised garden bed
Extension Master Gardeners Donna Craig (left) and Allison Nalepa (right) helping students set up raised beds for a vegetable garden. Photo by April Dertian.

As many people in 2020 are realizing, it is challenging to maintain interest with kids meeting online. Dertian has recently been getting some inspiration from another MSU program, a set of school garden webinars where part of the discussion is centered around how to keep children engaged remotely and use items that would commonly be found at home for projects.

I find the dedication of our MSU Extension Master Gardener volunteers to be inspiring. It is very encouraging to know that the Extension Master Gardeners are bringing knowledge and experience to youth that they might not otherwise receive as part of their normal school or home activities. There are many great volunteer projects that I could discuss, including another Junior Master Gardener program worked on by volunteers in Livingston County for over 10 years. I hope to highlight some more of those projects in the future!

In the meantime, if you are interested in bringing youth gardening education to your kids, contact your local MSU Extension office and see what opportunities are available or what ideas might be possible to bring to life.

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