DRESSED IN SHORTS AND RUBBER BOOTS, 7-year old Kayla Hulbert kneels in the soft soil and digs holes with her bare hands for five peat pots of corn starts. She plants two sunflowers and two pole beans that will climb up the tall flowers. Lettuce, onions and potatoes are next. The willowy second grader at Dows Prairie Elementary in McKinleyville has entered her school's Yarden Contest, where students voluntarily sign up to cultivate a one-square-yard patch of land at home.
Conceived by Pine Hill Elementary teacher Carol Green, a yarden is a square yard of land where the student makes the border, pulls the weeds and plants seeds or starts, without any help from parents. If land is not available, children can go to a relative's yard or plant in containers. Pesticides are not allowed.
This is an extracurricular project the student does for fun, says master gardener Cynthia Keene, the volunteer yarden coordinator for Dows Prairie.
"I just like seeing how proud and happy the yardeners are when they have accomplished something. They just love talking about it," she said.
Kayla Hulbert, a second
grader at Dows Prairie Elementary
in McKinleyville, works in her 'yarden' square.
The program, which is open to children in grades kindergarten through 5th, begins with the students signing a letter of intent in February to let the coordinator know they are interested in participating. In addition to actually planting the garden, students must write an essay, draw a plot plan and fill out all necessary forms, paying strict attention to deadlines. In June the yardeners are invited to the school's academic awards assembly where they are awarded a special certificate and a small garden prize from Keene.
The official Yarden Contest entry form is due no later than May 18. Students who are late are turned away.
"The hardest part is turning a late one away. But enforcing deadlines teaches them that a deadline is a deadline. It teaches responsibility and to follow through," Keene explained.
Young children also learn the value of patience.
"They learn it takes patience, that they need patience when going through the ups and downs of gardening that any of us go through. They find out what works and what doesn't. They learn how to deal with bugs and snails. There are absolutely no pesticides allowed in the program, so they must find creative ways of getting rid of the bugs," she said.
One student surrounded her yarden with beach sand to keep the slugs and snails out. Another received the Most Persistent Yardener award because she would not give up when failures arose. "First the ants came and took away her starts, and then the neighbor's goat came and gobbled it all up. And she just didn't give up . She just kept planting more starts and kept going." Keene said.
Keene spends many hours preparing forms, making contacts with teachers and then inspecting and evaluating the yardens in early June. This year 42 students signed up, but she anticipates only half will follow through. During the 15-minute inspection Keene tries to find a unique aspect of each child's plot. One student planted lambs ears, catnip and butterfly bush, so she received the Best Animal Garden Award. Another student's yarden was planted with all the colors of the rainbow, another a patriotic yarden of red white and blue flowers.
"The hardest part for me is trying to find a name for the yarden, a uniqueness," Keene said. This is a contest where everybody wins, she said.
Another challenge is coming up with the funds to purchase prizes for the students' awards. This is not a school-funded project, so Keene often spends money out of her own pocket to buy little prizes, although the school has tried to help out.
"I go in on my own time. I give the children knee pads, little trowels. I am not really a fund-raiser," she said, so she would welcome contributions.
Meanwhile, Kayla is busy tending her garden, not so much anticipating a garden award as looking forward to a crop of corn. "I love corn," she said, propping up a leaning plant with a mound of soil. Her mother, Marny, is thrilled with her daughter's efforts.
"I love seeing her so excited about the sprouts coming up. She's just getting more and more excited about this. I don't think I'll have to take care of my garden this summer because she will be doing it for me."