Children grow their own veggies at community garden

In this modern age, many have no idea where their food comes from, or what process that food has gone through before it reaches a dinner table. Most of us don’t know how to till our own soil or grow a cucumber.

But one group of locals is hoping to change all that, by giving children the opportunity to work in their own garden. They believe that working with the soil to grow plants can do more than just heal the earth – it also can build communities and heal people.

Sally Rizzo, 24, and Ryan Ayers, 25, recently built an 8- by 3-foot planter at Trinity Episcopal Church on West Fourth Street in the city.

The garden will serve as an agricultural learning area for youths who are enrolled in the Summer Counts! program, a joint-effort, community outreach program hosted by STEP Inc., The Campbell Street Family, Youth and Community Association, and the Community Alliance for Progressive Positive Action. The program seeks to help children grow academically and creatively.

Rizzo and Ayers had been planning on building a garden bed at their own home and had purchased a good amount of lumber for the project. After Rizzo became pregnant, the pair decided their efforts could be better spent helping the community’s children rather than building a bed at their rental home.

“We knew we might not be living here in a few years and we thought it would be better to put a garden where everyone else could use it and see it,” Rizzo said.

The church had toyed with the idea of putting garden beds in for some time, but Rizzo and Ayers helped them put those ideas into action. The pair built the beds themselves – quite the feat in the middle of July, when one is nine months pregnant.

“She was out there on the hottest day of the year, dripping sweat and helping me build these beds,” Ayers said.

However, Rizzo felt the project was an important one. She spent a long time detailing exactly what she hopes the garden will become.

“We want to provide a space and opportunity for children of all ages to interact harmoniously and curiously with the earth and its natural processes,” she wrote in the project’s mission statement.

“I was looking for some type of way to give back, and this just seemed like the perfect way. I would love to do more of this kind of outreach. I think it’s so empowering to teach people how to provide for themselves and work with the earth,” Rizzo said.

The garden will give children a chance to learn by doing, Ayers said. It was important to the pair to have the children become active participants in the growing process.

“It would have been much easier for us just to go down there and plant the plants ourselves. But we wanted to bring the kids in, let them get their hands dirty and have them feel the earth,” Ayers said.

About 20 fifth- and sixth-graders came out to plant the garden. While they were slow to take to the project, their perspectives changed by the end of the day.

“There was a huge change in their attitudes at the beginning compared to at the end. At first, the process was foreign to them and they didn’t want to touch the dirt,” Rizzo said.

Ayers recalled that many of the children had never seen the vegetable plants before. They did not know what a beet was, and only one of the children had tried a yellow tomato.

“But, by the end of the afternoon, they wanted to plant more plants than we had room for,” Rizzo said.

“Hopefully they’re going to be excited to try these veggies, since they’ve put so much work into growing them,” she added.

A variety of fruits and vegetables now fills the bed – including squash, cantaloupe, cucumbers, beans, peppers, scallions and beets. Both the soil and the plants themselves are entirely organic. The plants were a donation from The Organic Gardening Center at the Pajama Factory.

Rizzo, who works at the greenhouse, grew most of the plants from seed herself. Carl ———, owner of the business, donated the plants to the project. The Center paid for the organic soil, which they received from the greenhouse at a discount.

“We hope this sticks with these kids and they learn you don’t need a huge yard to grow a garden. We want to empower them to break the cycle of people who eat only fast food and frozen TV dinners,” Ayers said.

“I hope they remember this experience and can pass on that knowledge to their own kids,” he added.

Next year, the pair hopes to plant a “friendly insect garden,” which will be filled with flowers that attract beneficial insects such as honeybees and butterflies.

“There is an opportunity for this to grow into a much bigger thing, which is what we’re hoping for,” Rizzo said.