Outdoor classroom: Palmer Home garden teaches agricultural literacy

May 19, 2017 10:39:05 AM

India Yarborough - [email protected]


As the school year comes to a close and children look for other activities to occupy their time, one Palmer Home staff member has a solution: Take the classroom outdoors. 


Mary Tuggle has worked with the Columbus-based foster care facility Palmer Home for Children for almost 16 years as the campus' greenhouse and garden manager. In February she decided to partner with the Mississippi State Extension Service to implement a gardening program for Palmer Home students based on "agricultural literacy." 


About 15 Palmer Home children participate. 


"We're showing them engineering of how to lay down a pipe, the science of plants and the new technology of what's available to make farming easier," said Tuggle, whose experience growing up on a farm inspired the program. 


Agricultural literacy is geared toward teaching science, technology, engineering and math principles, and according to Tuggle, children participating in the Palmer Home gardening program are gaining STEM knowledge while having fun growing their own fruits and vegetables. 


"It makes them realize you've got to have math," Tuggle said. 


According to Lelia Kelly, Mississippi State Extension Service professor and horticulture specialist, Palmer Home takes advantage of its partnership with Mississippi State by using curriculum supported by 4-H and agriculture agents in Extension offices throughout the state. 


"She is using the MSU Extension Service Junior Master Gardener curriculum books and doing hands-on educational activities that encourage teamwork, leadership and life skills, all using gardening as the teaching vehicle," Kelly said. 




A new model 


Palmer Home has maintained greenhouses and a garden for almost 10 years, but this is the first year the gardening will emphasize education over profit. 


In the past, Palmer Home has followed a "community supported agriculture" model. Through this model, community members privately invest in the garden, and Palmer Home grew produce to sell for profit. However, Tuggle said the old model did not offer children enough opportunities to cultivate and nurture a garden from which they could eat and learn. 


"It is about the children," Tuggle said. "Even if we don't make a profit, it's life skills." 


She said they are learning to use hammers, pliers, push mowers, weed-eaters and tillers; studying the chemistry behind soil composition and seed germination; and discovering how to harvest produce they can cook with their house families. 


According to Tuggle the "hot items" on Palmer Home's campus this year have been spinach, broccoli, cucumbers and watermelons but that the group is also growing peas, green beans, squash, corn, blueberries, figs and more. 


Many of the recently planted summer vegetables will be ready for harvest in mid-July. If the group has more produce than it needs, Tuggle said the group will sell the overage, and the money will go back into the garden fund. 




Fruits of their labor 


Palmer Home teens, especially those returning to the garden after working previous years, seem to enjoy the labor and its lessons. 


"I enjoy working with others and learning new things every day. It teaches me to be a harder worker," said 17-year-old Dylan Larson, who has been gardening and selling plants with Palmer Home for three years. 


As he and the other 14 kids currently participating in the program grow more produce, Tuggle just has one rule: "If you grow it, you've got to taste it." 


At the end of each day, the children -- two or three kids from each of the six operating cottages on Palmer Home's campus -- get to take home the fruits of their labor. 


"Whatever the pick of the day is, they take back to their cottages and learn to cook it with a (house) parent," Tuggle said. 


Tuggle and the children learn and work in the garden two to three times a week, and she is hoping participation will increase as the program continues into next school year. 


"This is geared to where they can do a little bit after school," she said. 


As the summer goes on, Tuggle expects they will work weekday afternoons, barring high outdoor temperatures don't keep them inside.