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Diggin' In: Sharing techniques with young gardeners

May 19, 2014

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — Wendy Iles grew up playing in the dirt, like most kids did 50 years ago.  Her grandparents had a farm and her mother always gardened.

"With seven kids, we were expected to be out there as well," she says.

"I planted with my kids and the neighborhood kids 30 years ago. I always enjoyed sharing the information — and then the harvest. I was a culinary professional, so I expect the freshest produce to cook with and eat."

Now, the Hampton, Va., resident wants to share her expertise with today’s young generation, teaching them how to garden and how to prepare their harvest with tasty recipes.

 To accomplish that, she founded the nonprofit Hampton Grows www.HamptonGrows.org — with the goal to "build community by building gardens."

It’s a slow process but she’s gaining ground — seed by seed, plant by plant and ultimately garden by garden. She relies on grants and donations and the goodness of helping hands, especially husband Roger, who builds anything she needs. 

"I helped implement a garden at Phoebus High School in 2012, where I met so many teens who had no idea how to garden, what ‘real’ produce looked or tasted like," says Wendy, who has a 30-year culinary background.  

"Once I looked at poverty and obesity rates in our schools, I knew we needed to address the bigger issue of food by teaching children and adults not just how to eat better, but how to stretch their food budgets and grow their own.  

"After an accident left me sidelined, I started talking to and planning with like-minded people in Hampton.  We incorporated Jan. 1, 2013, and filed nonprofit papers shortly after, which are still pending.  Last year, we created nine totally different garden projects — from vertical pallet gardens to a hoop house, and each garden has its own personality."

Wendy and Roger, general manager of the Petco in upper Newport News, Va., operate out of a 10-by-26-foot greenhouse in their backyard.  There he builds the vertical gardens and totem planters they sell, while she plants seeds and plots community garden projects. Now, they are experimenting with aquaponics, recycling fish tank water to nourish plants growing in pelletized clay. 

"We’ve had eggplant all year," she says, pointing to an eggplant blooming and fruiting in a container above the tank of tilapia.

Eventually, Wendy wants the tilapia they breed to become part of school projects where kids are given baby fish in September and take home grown fish and aquaponically grown vegetables the following June.

"It’s a great school-year project that can teach the kids so much about so many aspects of life," she says.

So far, Hampton Grows has helped implement gardens, greenhouses and seed-starting programs at Virginia locations including Natasha House, a shelter for women in York County, Hampton History Museum, North Phoebus Community Center, Lincoln Park, Cary Elementary and Hampton Christian schools and Spratley Gifted Center. She’s also taught women to grow tomatoes and herbs in 5-gallon buckets.

She’s not limited to just working with wanna-be gardeners in Hampton venues. She’ll go anywhere, anytime to teach young and old how to start and plant seeds or how to prepare a fresh veggie.

"I’d like to see gardens all over Hampton building community and getting people of all ages outdoors," says Wendy. 

"There have been so many studies on the benefits of gardening, not only for greening Hampton, reducing crime rates to improving property values and most importantly, improving the quality of life for our community. 

"My ultimate hope is that no child or adult goes to bed hungry because they can’t afford to feed themselves or their family. If I can teach someone to garden and provide food for themselves, then I have succeeded."

STARTING SEEDS WITH TOILET PAPER ROLLS

Wendy likes to say everyone has empty toilet paper rolls so why not put them to good use throughout the year, using them as easy-make seed-starting containers.

—Assemble supplies: empty toilet paper rolls, seeds, potting mix, permanent marker and plant labels.

—Fold in one edge of the toilet paper roll.

—Press in corner. Then opposite corner to create the bottom.

—Fill with potting mix. Tamp down the soil and add more as needed to fill to ¾ full. Make a small hole in the center.

—Select your seeds. Larger seeds are easier for kids or elderly to work with.

—Drop one to two seeds in each hole.

—Using a Popsicle stick, cover the seeds lightly.

—Recycle blinds! Measure the blind and cut to fit your seedling "pot."

—Use recycled blinds, Popsicle sticks or plant markers.

—Label the seedlings so there’s no guess work.

—Set the pot in a shallow bowl of water to keep from disturbing the seeds. Keep the rolls damp, but not soaked.

"The rolls can be planted directly into the ground or in a bigger pot and are easy for small hands to manipulate without crushing the roots," she says.

 

 

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