Cultivating a Green Thumb: Starting a 4-H Gardening Program

Starting a 4-H Gardening Program

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Contact vspero@ufl.edu for information about starting a garden in Brevard County.

Starting a garden is a great way to get youth involved, engaged, and excited about eating and trying new vegetables. Plus youth learn valuable STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) skills. Add another bonus that we live in Florida so that sites can have three growing seasons (fall, winter, summer). So where do you start?

Make Contact

Step one is to contact the local UF IFAS Extension Office in your area. Gardening programs are funneled through multiple programs: Horticulture (Master Gardeners), 4-H Youth Development, and the Family Nutrition Program. The needs of the site, the population served, and the Extension office will determine which program assists with the garden.

Setting up a 4-H Gardening Program

For the purposes of this fact sheet, we will consider that the garden will be started through the 4-H Youth Development program. Here are the next steps:

  1. Meet with the 4-H Youth Development Agent and determine your needs. Is this a new garden? Existing garden? Are you looking to start a 4-H club? Is this going to be during schools hours or afterschool hours? Do you have money to garden? Do you need grants? All these questions will determine the assistance the 4-H program can offer. If you want the 4-H program to assist then the expectation is it will be a 4-H program. Whether that means starting a 4-H club enrichment program or an afterschool club, anticipate that there will be some “needs” from the 4-H program (enrollment numbers, evaluations, volunteer leader, etc.).
  2. You’re on board and you’re starting a 4-H program. After agreeing to become a club and naming a leader, what can 4-H offer? 4-H can offer assistance in getting the garden growing, including: site preparation, recommended seeds and transplants, recommended garden bed styles, funding sources (eligible grants, assistance in submitting grants, etc.). Not every 4-H program will be able to offer the same amount of assistance; it will ultimately depend on the 4-H Agent in charge of the program and the county support.
  3. And so it grows. Here are the recommendations on successful gardening:
    1. Get the support from the administrative powers. Are you allowed to have a garden? Where can it be located? How large can it be? Make sure to get the buy in from those you may need help from, including any ground maintenance crews.
    2. Scope out the site. Where will the water source come from? How much sunlight does the area get? These are all important questions to consider. Unravelling a 200 foot hose is not something elementary school youth will enjoy doing so plan accordingly.
    3. Start small. You can always add more to your garden but if you start too large and can’t maintain the site, it becomes an eyesore and overwhelming to the participants. One 4 ft x 8 ft garden bed is a great start for a class of 4th graders. Two beds may be perfect for an afterschool club.
    4. Raised beds are recommended. They require less soil amendments and maintenance. Traditional garden beds require tilling up the soil and this can be labor intensive. Raised beds can be constructed using a variety of materials: wood, cinder blocks, pavers, etc. With raised beds you do have the cost of adding the soil to the bed initially and topping it off each year, but you can control what soil you put in and have less pests to worry about. Finding an organic soil or compost in bulk that can be picked up or delivered is an excellent way to fill up your bed. Be wary though that grants do not fund soil/compost from bulk sources so using donated money is the best route to fill your bed this way.
    5. Consider the aesthetics of the garden: is a fence necessary? Fences don’t usually provide much protection from vandalism or critters but they can highlight the garden and show it off a bit. Remember to plan for a fence in the construction of the garden.
    6. Building the beds is a great activity to get the youth involved in. After safely showing and advising youth to use the building equipment, allow them to drill and construct the garden beds. They may not be perfect but the youth will have done it themselves. Fill the bottom of the bed with cardboard or weedguard. Having your wheelbarrows and shovels on hand (if using bulk soil/compost) and allow the youth to fill the beds. Be prepared since they will play and get dirty but this is what gardening is about. It is recommended to borrow the wheelbarrows, shovels, drills, etc. from other existing gardening programs or parents/volunteers so this cost doesn’t take up your budget. Note that some schools now require youth to garden with gloves. Make sure to check this out before you start.
    7. Let the beds rest and get ready to plant. In order to ensure success, select crops that are easy to grow first time around and pick a variety of different crops. Include some vegetables that youth have eaten before but try some new ones too. Start some from seed but obtain transplants too. Try to pick vegetables that are easy to eat in their raw form so youth can try them fresh from the garden.
    8. Plant the garden. Utilize the following UF/IFAS documents on vegetable gardening and herb gardening. These documents will assist gardeners in deciding what to plant, when to plant it, and how far apart to plant it. This will be trial and error in some cases. Your garden doesn’t have to be perfect and it can be an experiment in what will grow and what won’t grow. Don’t anticipate all the crops will be harvested but don’t be afraid to explore with your new green thumb.
    9. The garden will require regular maintenance: watering (mostly in the beginning and should taper off as plants mature and depending on growing season), weeding, pruning, harvesting.
    10. What do you do in the garden besides maintain it? You learn of course! There are great resources to utilize with excellent garden curriculum: FL Ag in the Classroom Gardening for Grades, FL Ag in the CL Gardening for Nutrition, Junior Master Gardener, 4-H Pizza Garden, etc. Lessons from these and other curriculum will allow further exploration in the garden as excitement continues with the growing season. Most Extension offices will have access to these materials and can point you in the right direction. Still not sure how gardening fits into your educational plan? Check out this program sheet on gardening in 4-H.
    11. Don’t forget to feed your youth members! Adding the extra component of nutrition education and food safety while preparing the foods from the garden are essential to getting youth interested in eating healthier. Plan lessons that involve cooking. If you don’t have access to a kitchen there are still a lot of ways to eat from the garden: provide or make dips or salad dressings, bring in a plug-in stovetop or grill to prepare vegetables with a little salt and olive oil.
    12. When the garden is not in use (at the end of the school year), make sure to close the beds out. Beds should be completely cleaned out of leftover vegetable and plant matter and covered with plastic or another sturdy material. This will keep weeds from taking over the garden bed so when it is time to start gardening again the following year there won’t be as much prep necessary.
    13. Still trying to get them to eat their vegetables? Refer to this eXtension article for ideas.
    14. What are the recurring costs associated with the garden? Soil, seeds, transplants, water, gloves, etc. These are items that will need to be purchased each year at a minimal cost. See if local gardening centers and stores will donate seeds or other items. Parent Teacher Associations/Organizations are also great to ask for donations for these items.

This is the just beginning but should get you started when considering the green thumb experience. Remember to contact your local UF/IFAS Extension office.

Contact vspero@ufl.edu for information about starting a garden in Brevard County.