P.J. Mossburg learned a few things by working in the Hope Garden this summer.
“You get to water it and put in the seeds and see how long it takes for it to grow,” the eighth-grader said of the local garden. “I learned you have to twist the cucumber to get it to come off the vine.”
This marks the third year for the garden at The Hope Center for Kids in Fremont. The 75-by-35-foot garden, which includes a variety of vegetables, is situated east of the building.
Fremonters John Foust and his brother, Marv, direct the work, helping kids learn not only about the garden but some life skills as well.
“I grew up on a farm and we had a garden when I was a kid,” John Foust said. “I didn’t think I’d ever have a garden myself, because my mother made us hoe all summer long.”
But Foust grew to enjoy gardening after Tara Starkey, the former mentoring coordinator, wanted to start a garden at The Hope Center.
Starkey first called her dad, who lives in Waverly, to help.
Her dad called Foust. The two men worked together years ago and Foust has known Starkey since she was a little girl.
So Foust agreed to dig into the gardening project.
“Raising a garden is a lot of work,” Foust said.
That’s why gardeners must raise fruits and vegetables they like to eat.
Foust remembers asking the kids what they liked.
One student said pineapple and another said bananas.
Those weren’t options, but then one student mentioned watermelon.
“You got it,” Foust said.
That first year, the Fousts and the kids grew tomatoes, cucumbers, sweet corn, musk melons, lettuce, carrots, pumpkins and watermelons in a smaller garden.
The next year, they added a variety of peppers.
This year, they added radishes, string beans and head cabbage, but opted not to grow musk melons or pumpkins.
They also grow onions, potatoes — and turnips.
Foust said the kids hadn’t eaten turnips before.
“You have to try one before you say you don’t like it,” he told them.
Thus, they grew turnips.
Foust told them to wash and peel the skin off the turnips, then slice them thin like a potato chip and eat them with a little salt.
He said the kids must have liked them because they came back for more.
With the soggy wet spring, the garden did get off to a late start this year. But in June, about 11 students started helping with the garden.
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Three students — Alex Salome and Yadira Garcia, both 14, and Walter Mijangos, 18 — continued to help throughout the summer, said Jonah Renter, Fremont site director.
Renter said the garden project is part of the Summer Lunch Program. Kids could spend an hour about one day a week, helping in the garden.
“They enjoyed John and Marv and being out with them,” Renter said. “And we had another volunteer, Edna Williams, who went out there with them, and those kids really attached to Edna.”
The kids were involved in various tasks, like pulling weeds.
“A lot of times, we’d just talk about different plants,” said Foust, who explained the process of pollination.
And students recalled what they were taught.
“That’s what amazed me,” he said.
Foust was pleased when a student mentioned that a second crop of corn was “tasseling” nicely and that the ears should have good kernels.
Before the garden, students didn’t know leaf lettuce from head lettuce.
Yet they learned to identify various plants, Foust said.
And they’d learn what a weed looked like so they’d pull that instead of a vegetable-producing plant.
Students asked one question all summer long:
“When will the watermelons be ready?”
That, in itself, could be a lesson in patience along with a bumper crop of other life lessons.
“They learn valuable life skills — like producing your own healthy food,” Renter said. “It’s all fresh, non-processed, and it’s also budget-relieving if you can grow your own food.”
Foust hopes students learn how to raise produce in a garden — and deal with problems that arise.
“We had a rabbit problem so I took some wire and we mended the fence and they (the students) got a kick out of using a pliers. They didn’t know what it was,” he said.
The students also saw some innovation at work when the brothers built raised walkways — which kind of look like benches — so the gardeners could more easily make their way to the watermelon mounds.
Foust carries a bucket of water on the walkway. He then pours the water into a homemade irrigation system through which liquid flows out of holes in a plastic bowl to nearby plants.
Besides resourcefulness, students can naturally develop virtues like dependability from the garden.
“John’s not pushing them to be here every week,” Renter noted. “They want to be here because they realize they have to be — they can’t just plant it and walk away, there’s work that goes into it. And I think John and Marv did a great job of teaching that without pushing them.
“The kids who did stay — they were a really solid group and they learned really valuable skills through that.”
Foust hopes the students might have their own gardens when they get older.
More immediate plans include selling some of the produce at a farmers’ market and using the proceeds to do something special with the kids, Renter said.
In the meantime, the students and their mentors can appreciate each other and the garden.
“I enjoy them,” Marv Foust said of the students. “Most of them are really into learning how it all works.”