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Gardening 101 for the Class of 2026
A joint program to turn city kids into lifelong gardeners

by Lisa Peters O'Brien
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On an unseasonably hot, sunny day in late May, a busload of highly animated second-graders from the Beech Street Elementary School in Manchester arrives at Massabesic Audubon Center in Auburn, N.H. Their exuberance is quickly corralled by UNH Cooperative Extension educator Julia Steed Mawson '78G, who splits them into groups and sends them out, led by adult garden mentors, among winding pathways, straw-mulched beds and squash and marigold seedlings.

The recent sultry temperatures have caused an eruption of flora and fauna in this picturesque, half-acre teaching garden. Insects industriously dart about, trying out their new wings or legs—much like the schoolchildren.

"Gross! What is that?!" cries Edwin, shrinking from the centipede making its way toward his sneaker. Another student tries to stomp on the offending bug. To these kids, many of whom have never been in a garden proper, it is an assault of what one volunteer calls the "yuck factor."

"Let it be," Mawson gently chides. "Every critter in the garden is important."

Mawson is the founding director of the New Hampshire 4-H Common Ground Garden Project, a joint program with the center that offers "hands-on, minds-on" activities to as many as 150 children a day in the summer. The children get garden, nutrition, environmental science and community service experiences of the touchy-feely kind. The program also works with residents of the Hillsborough County Nursing Home, who start plants for the garden; produce is donated to the New Hampshire Food Bank.

The philosophy behind the program is that the outdoors can be a healing place where everyone can be a successful learner; loving the outdoors is a low-cost life skill that kids (and adults) will have forever; and awareness about the environment leads to good decisions about it. Its execution, however, is very down to dirt.

Today's lesson, "What Plants Need" (soil, water, sun, air), is reinforced when the children prepare beds, dig holes and plant seedlings. As they gradually transform from outdoor-phobics to masters of the compost pile, it becomes clear that the take-home lesson is, "What Kids Need" (soil, water, sun, air—and worms).

In the concluding sharing circle held under a grape arbor, Mawson prompts the students to show her their hands. They hold out soil-caked fingers and palms. "Great! You're all gardeners now!"

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