Master Gardeners Inspire Future Plant Lovers

By Andrea Bowles, Fairfax Master Gardener
As a master gardener, one of my greatest joys is sharing a love of plants and gardening with the next generation through a program called Ready, Set, Grow! A 4-H-sponsored enrichment program, Ready, Set, Grow! (RSG) serves 4th-grade students in Fairfax County Public Schools, private schools and youth groups, such as Girl Scouts.

Volunteers from both the Fairfax County and Green Spring master-gardener organizations deliver the RSG program, sharing basic plant information with children in fun, interactive ways. Last year, about 45 volunteers presented in more than 80 classrooms in 21 elementary schools. This represents almost 2,000 students being introduced to the world of plants in one year alone, as well as hundreds of volunteer hours to make that happen. In its 16-year-history, the program has reached as many as 30,000 children.

45 volunteers, 80 classes, 21 schools, 2,000 students

So what exactly do we master gardeners teach these children in our two-hour presentations? Each RSG team of two tailors their time with students to include a few core topics, such as parts of a plant and the plant lifecycle — plus optional activities, such as dissecting a flower, so that the children can see up close all the parts of a plant. “I love the way kids get such a kick out of dissecting the bean seed and flower and using a hand lens to identify the parts,” says Beth Janick, a retired social worker who began volunteering with the RSG program last year.

One of the core activities is called the Fantasy Plant. The kids work in small groups to create a plant, real or nonsensical, and present it to the rest of the class. Anything goes with these projects, the only rules being that all parts of the plant have to be represented, and everyone in the group has to participate. Kids have created plants that cure a disease, help with homework, make pizza and walk pets. “I am impressed each and every time with the creativity the children display, as well as with the stories they build around their fantasy-plant projects,” says RSG volunteer Jana Tilinger, who hopes to use an RSG-like approach to introduce her four grandchildren, now toddlers, to gardening.

One of the highlights of the program is that the students plant a bean seed and a nasturtium seed to take home to nurture and observe.

As an RSG volunteer, I’ve been in schools to present in one classroom, only to have students from one of my earlier presentations in that school run up to me to report on how big their bean and nasturtium plants were growing. I’ve received hugs, smiles and homemade thank-you cards. Kids at this age are so sweet, and their enthusiasm is truly infectious. Beth Janick tells the story of a little girl who was so worried that her newly planted seeds would be neglected while she was away on spring break that she wanted to take the seedlings with her. How cute is that?

Fairfax County has a diverse population, making every classroom unique. Some students have never grown or experienced plants up close. Others have been involved with gardening for years. For many classes, the RSG presentation is an introduction to their science unit on plants. For others, our activities serve as reinforcement and enrichment to their teacher’s lesson plans.

“The hands-on experience is wonderful, and it’s all done in such a way that all the students go home feeling successful and truly excited about plants.”
   -Bonnie Brae

Many educators sign up to bring RSG into their classrooms year after year. Joan Jahshan, a teacher at Bonnie Brae Elementary School in Burke, has done so for 12 years. “Ready, Set, Grow! has been an awesome tool to enhance my instruction,” she says. “I set the groundwork – getting the kids interested — and then the experts come in and really rock the learning through the sky.”

Rivka Safferson, another Bonnie Brae teacher, says RSG is a science highlight for her students. When asked what she likes about the program, she says, “Oh my gosh, what is there not to love? The hands-on experience is wonderful, and it’s all done in such a way that all the students go home feeling successful and truly excited about plants. Ready, Set, Grow! really cements their learning.”

Some classes are quiet, some are rowdy, some have lots of questions, and some have lots to share. What doesn’t change is the children’s enthusiasm. The kids love the hands-on nature of the program and the chance to learn about plants in a special escape from their normal routine.

As for we master gardeners, we’re happy for the chance to encourage young people to become not only gardeners, but environmental caretakers of the future.