Classroom in the garden
  Educational project helps children learn about environment

June 17, 2004
DIANE SMITH
Victoria County
Master Gardener

Did you know there is an outdoor classroom in our area where children can explore the environment through created habitats for plant and animal life?

This outdoor learning site helps guide young people and adults to a lifelong appreciation for the living world and their part in its ecosystem. This wonderful garden has so much to offer children of all ages, and it is only a short distance away.

The garden I am talking about is Victoria Educational Gardens, and it is located on the grounds of the Victoria Regional Airport. It was planned, designed, and constructed totally through volunteer time and effort by the Victoria County Master Gardener Association. Trained master gardeners are now hosting garden tours and activities designed to meet the educational needs of children in our community.

According to an article published by Washington State University at

 http://benton-franklin.wsu.edu/garden/plantsgrowchildren.htm

 gardening programs do more than teach plant science and stimulate an interest in gardening. Classroom gardening projects have been documented to increase the understanding of specific concepts, increase enthusiasm and interest in science, plants, and learning, and increase a sense of pride, a sense of accomplishment, self-esteem and confidence while improving environmental awareness and concern.

While in the vegetable garden, a volunteer may read the book "Growing Vegetable Soup" to a group of young children, then show them vegetables in various stages of growth, allow them to pick some vegetables, and teach them that in many cases the flower of the vegetable plant produces the fruit. This helps youngsters understand where food comes from. Young children are fascinated in seeing the food when it is picked from the plant, and they notice the similarities and differences from their garden vegetables as compared to the produce from the grocery store.

One of the favorite sites among the children is the bigger-than-life-size birdhouse classroom. Here you will see children hopping through the door and window openings pretending to be birds nesting in the birdhouse. Inside are benches the new fledglings perch on while learning all sorts of information about the favorite berries and seeds the birding area provides. Some students have dissected flowers to identify the various parts and develop an understanding of pollination along with its connection to producing berries, seeds, and fruits.

Often our young visitors pretend they are butterflies flitting around looking for milkweed on which to lay their eggs, or they may imagine themselves to be hungry caterpillars lazily munching on passion vine leaves, while passing the time until they change into a chrysalis. Of course the most exciting time is emerging as a beautiful monarch or gulf fritillary butterfly, only to begin the cycle all over again.

The sensory and native gardens host many pleasurable experiences for the young learners where sight, sound, taste, texture, and smell are used to enjoy the many opportunities of outdoor learning and entertainment. Children listen for the sounds of the deer chaser fountain, the sounds of the bamboo wind chimes, and the rush of the breeze through the lemon grass. Colors, textures and fragrances of the many herbs, shrubs, and flowering perennials abound here. Often curiosity and imagination can lead the learner on an enchanting adventure.

Other areas of interest are the rainbow gardens where the youngest learn the colors in the rainbow and can experience the hues first hand. Also intriguing are the animal alphabet gardens where they observe and touch plants such as alligator plant, bee balm, cat whiskers, dragon wing begonia, and elephant ears.

There are numerous other activities for inquiring minds. Visitors use recycled paper to construct grow cards, garden hats and flower pots. They may investigate compost and different types of soils and learn about beneficial bugs, plant propagation, flower parts and pollination. There is even a scavenger hunt that can be enjoyed by any age. If you want your child to explore nature first-hand, visit the VEG where children love to learn!

The Victoria County Master Gardeners are exceedingly proud of their longterm ongoing project, affectionately known as "VEG." Members frequently talk about "Vegging out at VEG" although they do far more than "veg out" at the site.

VEG was made possible by generous support from the community, both directly and indirectly, coupled with thousands of hours of master gardener volunteer service. And it did not stop with design and construction; continual efforts are expended weekly and sometimes daily (in the heat of the summer) with tender loving care and maintenance. The Children's Garden and Vegetable Garden comprise Phase I - with five more phases planned for the future. Original funding was obtained directly through monetary donations from the community and through grant writing. Indirect funding is continuously allocated through proceeds from the increasingly popular master gardener plant sales as well as the recent Annual Garden Tour, which included VEG as one of its garden sites. The master gardeners wish to thank all who support our programs and projects and for necessary ongoing interest in VEG.

Phases II though VI, the latter of which will encompass a covered pavilion and restroom facilities, are in planning stages with focused fund-raising efforts to soon again approach the community and physical work on new areas intended to begin in the latter part of this year. There will be something for everyone interested in what VEG has to offer - both for the young and young at heart. With community support, VEG will continue to provide satisfaction to local educational classroom and area garden club field trips as well as tourists from outside of our region, and for the casual lover of beautiful gardens as well as the serious gardener who seeks to continue to learn from such a hands-on learning site.

Seeing and learning about nature in a planned setting furthers the educational mission of the master gardener and extension programs. Continued interest and community support energizes the master gardeners at VEG, and together, we can continue to provide the "Classroom in the Garden" for the young and old alike.

The Victoria County Master Gardeners Association is sponsoring a summer Junior Master Gardener program at the Boys and Girls Club. Enrollment in the program is open. For more information about this program or to arrange children or adult group activities and tours at VEG, call the Victoria County Extension Office at 361-575-4581.