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Last spring, homebound West Virginians got the gardening bug. Whether it was for the first time ever or for the first time in a while, people got out in their yard to plant vegetable gardens, flower beds and update landscaping.

This spring, indications from Grow This! West Virginia and the West Virginia Conservation Agency point to another big gardening year for families, schools and communities. Garden centers and farms, like Green’s Feed and Seed in Charleston and Gritt’s Farm at Buffalo, are gearing up to meet the growing demand.

Grow This! West Virginia, a West Virginia University Extension Services program, offers free seeds on a first come, first served basis to residents who want to participate in the program. This year, participants will receive seeds to grow a Native American three sisters garden of corn, beans and squash. Registration ends Jan. 31. Some 7,500 people had already registered by Jan. 4. The aim of the program is to encourage people to develop healthier eating habits by learning how to grow, harvest and prepare vegetables.

A related program by the West Virginia Conservation Agency offers a mix of vegetable and flower seeds to those who sign up. Focusing on soil, water and conservation messages, the agency encourages people to learn what they can do to protect and enhance the soil and water. This year, people can register through Feb. 15. In the first five days of online registration, more than 450 people signed up for the program, which can accommodate 2,000.

At Green’s Feed and Seed, Mike Green and his staff are already stocking the shelves with seeds and looking for more to come. “We almost sold completely out of seeds and plants last year,” said Green. “We’re ready for customers now, but we’ve been told by our suppliers that interest like last year’s could mean seed shortages later this spring.”

Brad Gritt of Gritt’s Farm enjoyed seeing people spending more time in their gardens last year and hopes to see that continue this year.

“National studies say that there may have been as many as 10 million people with new or renewed interest in gardening last year,” said Gritt. “I believe this year those people will continue to garden and continue to enjoy gardening wins, whether they are big or small.”

Jessica Hudson, youth health educator for the WVU Extension Service Family Nutrition Program, said, “Our goal with Grow This! West Virginia is to encourage better understanding of family nutrition and help parents and children discover that it is fun to grow your own food and find ways to enjoy these vegetables in their meals.”

Hudson said this is the fourth year for the program. “We had to regroup again this year because of the restrictions of the pandemic, so while we are working with schools where and how we can, we also are reaching out to the general population and encouraging families and communities to join our program, while working within social distancing guidelines.”

Seeds and partnerships

The West Virginia Conservation Agency program is an outgrowth of a program started years ago by the Capitol Conservation District, which still offers a seed giveaway to Kanawha County residents, according to Aimee Figgatt, education and outreach specialist for the agency. “When people sign up, they can let us know if they want to grow vegetables, flowers or a combination of both,” said Figgatt. “We also offer an opportunity to grow a pollinator garden.”

Both programs provide participants with information on how to grow the seeds they receive and ideas for how they can build upon these programs to continue to develop gardens that suit their personal preferences and interests in conservation.

The West Virginia Conservation Agency receives its seeds through a partnership with The Chas. C. Hart Seed Company, of Wethersfield, Connecticut.

“The seed company provides us with a variety of bulk seeds at a wonderful discount and has been a great partner for this program,” Figgatt said. “The state’s regional conservation districts and the Master Gardeners also are important partners in our efforts to promote this and other conservation programs.”

Master Gardeners help divide the bulk seeds into packets and each participant gets varieties of seeds and informational fliers with gardening tips.

“Throughout the season, we keep in touch with the people who received seeds, offering tips and suggestions on our website and through Facebook,” said Figgatt. “We encourage them to send in photos of their garden successes and to tell us how their season is coming along and ask for advice. It’s a great way to get people learning about conservation without face-to-face meetings and gatherings.”

At Gritt’s Farm, the staff has planted about 15 to 20 percent more for this spring than they did last year. “Along with having more to offer, we’ll introduce some new plants at our farm and our booth at the Capitol Market,” said Gritt.

His business will continue the curbside deliveries and home deliveries that it began offering last year. “We missed some of our elderly customers who were unable to get out or who were uncomfortable going to busy places. We hope we’ll see them this year,” he said.

Gritt said the farm staff also is looking at new ways to help customers. “We have offered a hands-on workshop for customers who want to make flower baskets,” he said. “This year, we are going virtual. We’re sending information about the workshop to those who sign up.”

Mike Green enjoyed seeing more families shopping for seeds, plants and garden equipment last year. “It was great to see families planning their gardens together and getting excited about their gardens,” Green said.

He said some asked for advice and many purchased seeds and plants that they could grow to can or freeze, because they were worried about the possibilities of food shortages.

“We are beginning to get some of our early plants in from suppliers now,” said Green, who purchases some plants from West Virginia businesses. “A lot of people are still working from home and we hope that families will continue gardening this year and build on the successes they had last year.”

Educational outreach

Hudson hopes that families will continue to garden as well. Grow This! West Virginia extends the educational outreach of the schools and community programs for which she is responsible. Last year, the early closing of schools left her with the challenge of distributing basil plants to students around the Kanawha Valley. This year, she’s considering how to continue school programs to schools that are able to participate.

In the meantime, she is working with about a dozen childcare centers in the area. “These centers are open and have children of different ages, so we are developing a program for them,” she said. “We do have teachers at some schools indicating they have an interest in doing something.”

One of those schools is Ruffner Elementary School in Kanawha County. Principal Henry Nearman is proud of the gardening program that has developed from a preschool activity to a school-wide program that includes a garden club, taste testings and the incorporation of gardening themes in math, English and science classes.

“It is important to our faculty that we educate the entire child,” said Nearman, who has been principal at Ruffner for nine years and was a counselor there for almost four years before that. “We have arts, music and physical exercise activities that go beyond pencil and paper learning and give students opportunities to experience getting involved.”

The gardening activities are under the direction of kindergarten teacher Mimi Davis, who says that the whole thing started 31 years ago when she began working with preschool children at Ruffner. “I asked myself what I liked to do when I was four, and the answer was make mud pies,” she said. “I couldn’t really do that but I could get the students interested in the outdoors with gardening.”

She started originally with seed potatoes. The students planted the potatoes and harvested them. Then they made French fries. Davis said the first time she asked the students if they knew where French fries came from, one student eagerly shouted, “McDonald’s!”

Since then, with the help of other teachers and generous parents, Ruffner’s gardens have grown. Three years ago, the school started a garden club for third, fourth and fifth graders who plant, care for and harvest the crops they grow. This includes taking responsibility throughout the summer as well as the school year.

In English class, students connect literature with gardening through books like “Stone Soup” and “Sally’s Pizza.” In math, students study the height of sunflowers. In social studies, students were challenged to paint a picture without crayons, paint or markers. Using beets, carrots and mulch, they made their own paints.

When the food is ready to harvest, the students make smoothies in the winter from the kale and learn how to use the food they grow for meals. They also learn food safety handling. Nearman serves as a guest chef and shares his recipes for salsa and pickles. Davis said using measurement tools is another great way to teach math skills.

Davis, like Hudson, believes that giving students a chance to grow food is one of the best ways to encourage them to experiment and eat new foods. “Kids like to eat what they grow,” Hudson said. “And they will go home and talk to their parents about trying the new things at home.”

Master Gardeners step up

While Hudson waits to learn more about what she’ll be able to do with schools this year, she is busy working at Camp Virgil Tate with partners from the camp and Master Gardeners who have stepped up to assemble the seed packets for the three sisters project (see sidebar), and help with other garden projects at the camp. The plants grown at the camp will be used for a fundraiser and donated to local kids’ garden projects. Some of the produce grown at the camp will be used in the camp kitchen, either to serve kids at camp or sold to the community through the camp store and Turnrow Collective.

“This year, we had help from the Capitol Conservation District, which donated a high tunnel,” Hudson said. “We are growing peppers and tomatoes that will be for sale at a late May fundraiser.”

Carolee Felber, president of the Kanawha County Extension Master Gardeners, says that working with the Conservation Agency and WVU Extension Service gives association members an opportunity to do community service work.

“When Jessica was overwhelmed with seed requests, Master Gardeners stepped up and offered to help make seed packets,” she said. “Seed packets will be dropped off at members’ homes where they can do the packaging while following social distancing guidelines.” Master Gardeners also are able to work at Camp Virgil Tate, building weed barriers for the high tunnel and labeling plants for a walk-in-the-woods path. Both are projects that can be done without physical contact.

The WVU Extension Master Gardeners program initiated virtual certification training last spring due to the pandemic. Nine Extension Master Gardeners in Training and many continuing Master Gardeners from Kanawha County took part in the fall event. According to Felber, “It certainly is different, but it allows for people statewide to take advantage of meetings that feature some experienced and interesting speakers that we might not all have access to when meeting in person.”

The pandemic might have slowed some things down, but gardening in West Virginia is thriving.

For more information on the above programs, contact:

n WVU Extension Service on Facebook, or at the website extension.wvu.edu.

n West Virginia Conservation Agency on Facebook, or at the website wvca.us.

For more information on the above programs, contact WVU Extension Service on Facebook, or at the website extension.wvu.edu, and the West Virginia Conservation Agency on Facebook, or at the website wvca.us