National Arboretum garden program cultivates healthy habits, family togetherness

By Tamika L. Gittens
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 1, 2010

Xavier Williams, 5, carefully dropped two tiny collard seeds into a hole in a plot at the Washington Youth Garden and gently covered them with soil. Over the next few weeks, he'll come back to watch them sprout and flourish.

When the greens are fully grown, he and his mother might even get to take them home and enjoy them for dinner with the family.

Xavier, who is not a fan of vegetables but already has pronounced gardening "fun," is among 17 youngsters who are spending Saturday mornings this summer in the "Growing Food . . . Growing Together" program at the U.S. National Arboretum in Northeast Washington. Most started without any gardening experience, but they leave each week with a greater knowledge of growing herbs and vegetables, tips on preparing meals and armloads of fresh produce.

"It really is about trying to cultivate a new crop of gardeners," said Kaifa Anderson-Hall, program director.

The families said they are learning to adopt healthy habits and enjoying spending time together. The 446-acre arboretum, perhaps best known among Washingtonians for its springtime azalea walks, offers a haven from the daily grind. It's a place to meet new friends, enjoy the quiet and, sometimes, get dirty.

Established in 1971, the Washington Youth Garden was organized by the Friends of the National Arboretum to provide hands-on science and food education to children and their families. Anderson-Hall, who was once a participant and later a volunteer, said it started as a summer program for children who tended to individual plots. Over the years, it blossomed into a communal garden tended by children and families.

One recent Saturday morning, sorrel, broccoli, pole beans, tomatoes and watermelon were flourishing in the one-acre youth garden. Garden coordinator Chris Turse coached the families as they planted purple and blue turnips, cherry bell radishes and collards.

"If you plant shallow and just barely cover it, you'll almost always get germination," Turse said.

Xavier, who paid close attention to the instructions, planted his collard seeds with care. But much of his attention was focused on spotting bugs that scurried by.

"My favorite spiders are daddy longlegs," he said.

Lavonda Williams, his mother, a lawyer, said the program gives her a chance to spend quality time with her son.

"This really gives us an opportunity to do things together and share knowledge," she said.

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