Ceres community garden is a classroom

CERES — Christina Hemming volunteers at a school garden, helping kids learn while they sink their hands into the dirt.

"They can tell you all about worms and roly-poly bugs and butterflies and the bees for pollination," said Hemming, a parent at Julien School in Turlock.

She was among about 40 people who gathered Tuesday to enrich their knowledge about school and other community gardens.

The event, held at the Heifer International farm, taught them about sowing, fertilizing, irrigation and other steps toward producing a bounty at a low cost.

"I think it's really popular now because they are getting more nutrition information in the schools, and there is more concern about obesity," said Anne Schellman of the University of California Cooperative Extension.

The extension co-sponsored the event with Heifer, a global anti-poverty group with six acres of crops and livestock on Don Pedro Road.

The participants came from schools and garden clubs, as well as programs for people with mental and developmental disabilities.

The speakers stressed nonchemical methods. Instead of synthetic fertilizer, for example, they use worm castings, composted plant and food scraps, and nitrogen-capturing legumes.

Paul Bertler, Central Valley field coordinator for Heifer, showed how corn, beans and squash aid each other in a way discovered by American Indians: The corn provides a stalk for the beans to climb. The beans boost nitrogen in the soil. The squash leaves shade the ground and prevent weeds.

Experts talked about saving seeds from one year to the next, and about planting flowers to attract good bugs that eat bad bugs.

"The most important thing is to have diversification of crops," said Antonio Perez, a volunteer at the farm.

Catherine Cantu, a special education teacher at Empire School, said she learned about unfamiliar vegetables, such as okra and fava beans.

Cantu got more ideas about container gardening Tuesday. In the past, she has planted a garden in a wheelbarrow, which she moves in and out of the classroom.

At Julien, Hemming said, children have done art, songs, writing and science lessons related to gardening.

"It's one of those projects that, if you realize the potential, it can work wonders," she said.

Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at or 578-2385.

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