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Published: Friday, 5/14/2004

3 youths grow into gardeners

BY RACHEL ZINN
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Keon Pearson, 11, and Dominique Kassa, 11, work with their plants at the Toledo Botanical Garden. Keon Pearson, 11, and Dominique Kassa, 11, work with their plants at the Toledo Botanical Garden.
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The community gardening program at the Toledo Botanical Garden was running low on cash this year, but because of the help of three local youngsters, the program has plenty of green to give away.

Michael Szuberla, head of the Toledo GROWS community gardening program, has worked at a greenhouse with the three students almost every weekend since March. The group grew more than 3,000 plants and learned about different cultures through diverse agricultural traditions and foods.

"It's a great way to reach kids on a whole bunch of levels at once," Mr. Szuberla said. "When kids grow things themselves, they're much more open-minded."

The group sold some of its flowers, vegetables, and herbs last week at the annual Toledo Botanical Garden plant sale. Most of the greenhouse-grown goods were donated Monday to 40 area community gardens.

The Toledo GROWS program believes that community gardens beautify the city and promote good nutrition and a sense of civic duty. Schools and churches oversee some of the community gardens, while others are neighborhood projects. Many of the gardens donate some of their produce to soup kitchens in the area.

In past years, Toledo GROWS has bought plants to give to community gardeners, but recent budget cuts put a pinch on the program. Having students help grow plants provided a cheaper alternative.

"This was a way to keep our services going and offer additional education to kids," Mr. Szuberla said.

One of Mr. Szuberla's helpers, Keon Pearson, has experience working on a community garden in his neighborhood. The 11-year-old, who attends Toledo's Nathan Hale Elementary School, said he had a great time working with Mr. Szuberla.

"I learned about pesticide, fungicide, and, um, there's one other one. I keep wanting to say homicide, but I know that's not right," he said. "Herbicide! That's it."

Keon and his younger brother, Jalen Stewart, grew dozens of plant varieties with Mr. Szuberla at the Frank Dick Natural Science Technology Center. The building, which is next to the botanical garden, is operated by Toledo Public Schools. Dominique Kassa, a student at Toledo's Grove Patterson Academy, also helped.

"It's fun to get into the dirt and just play around," Dominique said.

Mr. Szuberla said he tries to incorporate academic subjects in their work at the greenhouse. For example, the group discussed how exploration throughout history was caused by the desire for different spices. They dealt with chemistry by learning about the nutrients in soil.

The students didn't just learn about earth; they sampled the world. They grew foreign crops like Thai basil, then tasted traditional foods from India, Ethiopia, Korea, and Japan.

"I tried squid, " Keon said. "Dominique was too scared to try it."

On other trips, the students met with Marvin Duren, a successful Waffle House operator who recently started an organic gardening business, shared their knowledge with students at Glenwood Elementary School in Toledo, and worked at Bench Farms in Curtice.

Many of the activities were paid for by a $900 grant from the Konnecting Northwest Ohio Through Service initiative at Bowling Green State University. Mr. Szuberla said he hopes to receive more grants so he can continue working closely with more local youths.

"We're trying to find an effective way to reach kids," Mr. Szuberla said. "We're hoping these kids will be leaders and show their peers that gardening can be fun and can do good things."

Contact Rachel Zinn at:

rzinn@theblade.com

or 419-410-5055.



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