Virginia Cooperative Extension Master Gardeners work with youth across the commonwealth to share their knowledge on wide-ranging topics from entomology and arboriculture to environmental conservation and farm-to-table agriculture. Master Gardeners provide community-level programming designed to meet local needs and forge partnerships that advance the well-being of all Virginians.

In Bedford, Master Gardeners have partnered with the Bedford Area Family YMCA to provide gardening education to youth involved in after school-care and summer programs. In the YMCA’s unique permaculture teaching garden, Master Gardener volunteers share important knowledge about their local landscape and the amazing science of our natural world.

The large permaculture teaching garden was used for little youth education until Brenda Gibb, a Master Gardener and YMCA board member, saw an opportunity to forge a partnership. In 2019, Master Gardeners began offering weekly lessons to children attending the YMCA’s after-school program.

According to Gibb, although Bedford is a largely rural county, many of the children attending YMCA programs have little gardening experience. She, along with Master Gardeners with teaching experience, developed lesson plans that cover a diverse range of topics and take advantage of the unique opportunities offered by the permaculture teaching garden, including education related to ecosystems and science. These lessons provide youth with an opportunity to engage in hands-on programming, turning ideas about ecosystems or farming into experiences.

group of people stand around a man crouching down as he holds a small plant
Children attend a tree planting event at the Bedford Area Family YMCA garden. Photo courtesy of Brenda Gibb.

“Children enjoy picking berries, planting, and harvesting crops, but it’s not just getting a trowel and planting stuff,” said Gibb. “Kids make mini compost kits, learn to identify insects, and count the rings in tree stumps. We plant bulbs in the fall and get to see them come up in the spring.

“We harvested and dried corn, then the children ground it and made corn muffins in the garden’s teaching kitchen. Using the beehive in the garden, a local beekeeper showed them how honey is made, and the kids got to eat their muffins with honey from the garden,” said Gibb.

“Because it’s a permaculture teaching garden, the children are exposed to permaculture concepts and learn how different parts of the environment work together. It provides a much more comprehensive educational opportunity than a standard vegetable garden,” said Scott Baker, Bedford Agriculture Extension agent.

Permaculture is an approach to gardening that considers the patterns and relationships of different components of natural ecosystems — for example by grouping together plants that offer benefits to one another.

In addition to providing horticultural education to youth, teaching garden projects such as the Bedford YMCA garden also offer important opportunities for intergenerational community relationships. Adult volunteers have the chance to learn from youth, and youth have the chance to learn from adults.

“It’s great for young kids to see positive role models willing to volunteer their time to teach them and share experiences with them,” Baker said. “You get a lot of joy and satisfaction seeing light bulbs go off with these kids."

“This partnership has been very impactful for us because the permaculture component offers a good continuing-education opportunity for our Master Gardener volunteers,” Baker continued. “There’s also the neatness of working with young people.”

Extension education programs expand community access to research and knowledge from Virginia’s land-grant universities, Virginia Tech and Virginia State University, while also building vital intergenerational community relationships and strengthening partnerships with local organizations.

To learn more about gardening or join a community group of other passionate gardeners, contact your local  Master Gardener unit by searching for your county on the Virginia Cooperative Extension website or Facebook.

Written by Devon Johnson

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