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Gardening grows on them

Pam Meisner, aka Ms. Smarty-Plants, works with student Diego Ramirez as he waters a tomato plant at The Water Conservation Garden near Cuyamaca College. (K.C. Alfred / U-T)

ight-year-old Amelia Hislop has her own set of gardening tools and boxes of seeds that she replenishes during visits to nurseries. She enjoys digging holes and pulling weeds. She has harvested lemon basil, tomatoes and strawberries in the backyard of her Oceanside home. The third-grader has also planted milkweed to create a habitat for monarch butterflies.

There are many things Amelia enjoys about gardening, including making decisions about what to plant and tasting what she grows.

“The best part is getting my hands dirty,” she said.

Amelia’s mother, Marie Hislop, has observed how gardening has benefited her daughter, who often pitches in to prepare family meals with just-harvested tomatoes and herbs.

“We have killed plants, but every year we get a little better,” she said. “Amelia has learned to be patient, to persevere. Gardening has encouraged her interest in the natural world.”

Research shows that children who garden tend to eat more fruits and vegetables, and also understand the benefits of good nutrition. They learn life skills and teamwork. They become more attuned to their natural environment.

In addition to year-round gardening weather, San Diego County has plenty of resources to inspire and encourage budding plant enthusiasts.

Marie Hislop credits regular visits to the Bugs, Birds & Butterflies Children’s Garden in Vista with sparking Amelia’s interest in growing and caring for plants. Located within Alta Vista Botanical Gardens, the children’s garden is dotted with native shrubs, fruit trees, whimsical sculptures, plant quiz boxes and an edible garden. Nancy B. Jones, director of children’s programs, presents monthly classes on gardening-related topics. The facility is also a destination for school and scout groups.

Members of the school garden committee of the Master Gardener Association of San Diego County provide their expertise to help schools plan, install and maintain campus gardens. Encinitas resident Charlotte Getz, a master gardener and landscape consultant, has mentored students at Torrey Hills School in Carmel Valley for the past 10 years.

On a recent cool, overcast Monday afternoon, more than 20 garden club members began their spring planting chores. They pulled remnants of winter plants from raised beds, leveled soil and dug holes with hand trowels. Getz showed students how to tease out compacted roots from a container-grown tomato plant.

“Pull gently with your hands,” she said.

Uma Krishnan, science specialist at Torrey Hills School, has been in charge of the garden club since it began about a dozen years ago. The school’s three gardens serve as classrooms where she teaches her students about the life cycle of plants, soil erosion, climate and pollinators.

“Working outdoors is a great way to get physical exercise. It sparks interest in healthy eating,” Krishnan said. “It teaches children patience and responsibility.

“I have seen my students gain a sense of ownership toward the gardens. They begin to understand what it takes to grow something. They are less likely to throw food away.”

Students look forward to the salad parties using the vegetables and greens they have grown and harvested, Krishnan said. She has also seen children becoming more adventurous eaters.

“They are exposed to things that maybe they have not seen or tasted before,” she said.

The Water Conservation Garden in El Cajon is a living classroom where youngsters and grown-ups learn about sustainable growing and smart water use. Pam Meisner, director of operations, education and programs, dons the persona of Ms. Smarty-Plants as she leads garden tours for students of all ages, from preschool to college. Students from Davila Day School visit once a month to tend to the edible garden.

“They till the soil. We talk about why soil is so important,” Meisner said. “They water plants and measure them to see how they are growing. Are the plants growing? And why aren’t they growing? Are the rabbits eating them? How do we protect them? Our goal is to nurture a caring and loving generation of earth stewards.”

In addition to plants, trees and soil, the kid-friendly City Farmers Nursery in City Heights stocks children’s gardening tools. Families can enter pumpkin and zucchini growing contests, fill brown bags with red wiggler worms for composting and get a close-up look at the menagerie of resident animals, including ducks, turtles, goats and geese. The nursery also offers group tours.

Community gardens across the county provide gardening space as well as opportunities for camaraderie with other gardeners. Annual fees and plot sizes vary.