"Hey, Mr. Hash, are these weeds?" asks Bobby.
"Look at my onions!" says Derek.
"Can I jump over your garden?" asks Alethea.
By the end of the growing season, Bobby, Derek, Alethea and 350 other District kids in gardening programs run by the D.C. Recreation Department will each have grown their own weight in vegetables. But this is just the beginning of the season, and the onions, Swiss chard, mustard greens, beets, radishes, lettuce, tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, cabbage, kale, collards, okra and string beans are still seeds, or tiny sprouts just beginning to push through the soil of the kids' 5' x 14' plots.
"This is the hardest work you'll be doing all summer," Bill Hash, who heads the program, says encouragingly to Nathaniel and Craig, who are getting their plots ready for planting. "We've already put down lime and fertilizer. You have to dig it into the soil - don't just move it around. As soon as you're finished, we're going to plant some onion sets."
Leaving Nathaniel and Craig to work the soil with long-handled, three-pronged tools called cultivators; Hash goes to help some young gardners who have already started planting.
"Be careful,Damon, don't dig up what you planted. You have some mustard there. . . Bobby, your rows are a little too deep, son."
Meanwhile, Hash's assistant, Jerry Smith, is getting a group of kids started planting Swiss chard.
"Get a ruler and a stick that says "SC" on it," instructs Smith. "Measure one foot from the stick that has M for mustard on it, put the swiss chard stick in, and cultivate in a straight line."
The kids pick up rulers and sticks and go back to their gardens. When Hash and Smith have checked their rows, the kids get their seeds and start planting. Since some kids have come to the once-a-week program more faithfully than others, the gardens are at different stages. Someone asks Derek what he's planting today.
"Swiss cheese, I think," he replies.
"No, you picklehead," says his neighbor. "It's Swiss chard. It's like a spinach."
"Ugh," says Derek.
"I give the Swiss chard to my grandfather," says Sarah, who was in the gardening program last year, too. "I like mustard and beets best."
"Do you like onions?" Alethea asks her. "My grandfather knows how to eat them raw."
What both girls agree they don't like are worms, which Alethea keeps digging up.
"Ugh, you should have been here on the first day," says Sarah. "We found all kinds of them - big, juicy ones."
Their neighbor, Dwayne, in true macho style, picks up the offending worm and starts dangling it in front of the girls, but Hash soon puts him back on the straight and narrow.
"Use the two fingers next to your thumb. Turn them sideways and make little short strokes, like this," he says, making a straight, narrow row in the dirt for Dwayne's mustard seeds. Some seeds, including mustard seeds, are just sprinkled in. Others have to be planted an inch apart, and the kids measure out the space with rulers.
"Put the ruler down next to your row," suggests Hash. "Every time you see a number, you're going to put down a seed."
Nathaniel has finished planting his onion sets, and Hash helps him cover them up with soil.
"We're going to plant half a row of lettuce and half a row of radishes over the onions," he explains."It's sort of an experiment to see how much we can grow on a small plot. The average for each kid is 50 pounds, but we also have a 60-pond club and a 75-pound club. With the price of food today, thath's pretty significant. it gives the kids a sense of providing - it's a maturing feeling. And it's a fun thing to do - to garden with your friends."
Except for the tomato, pepper and eggplant, which is being nurtured in the greenhouse until it really gets warm, Bobby's garden is all planted. He leans on his cultivator and sighs with satisfaction.
Bill Hash's tips for young gardeners:
Choose a site for your garden that's sunny and close to a source of water. Good drainage is important, too. If water just stands in a place after it rains, the drainage is poor. Waterlogged soil can kill plants.
Dig your site up thoroughly.Turn over the soil tto a depth of a foot or more. To find out what your soil needs to create good growing conditions, send a sample to the Agricultural Extension Service in D.C., Maryland or Virginia. Usually, soil needs fertilizer - either organic or inorganic - and ground limestone.
Select vegetables you really like to eat. Don't overdo it - two or three are enough for the first year. Plant them in rows according to the instructions on the package.
Learn to recognize the difference between a vegetable seedling and a weed. If you plant your vegetables in rows, anything not growing in the row is probably a weed. CAPTION: Illustration, no caption, By John Pack.