Growing Good Kids — Q&A with Lisa Whittlesey
Kids are the future. We know this, and that’s why we’re so passionate about getting kids growing. Right alongside us with this passion is Lisa Whittlesey, the director of the Junior Master Gardener program. She has a Masters of Horticulture at A&M, is author/co-author of 9 youth environmental curriculums, and is a coordinator of several horticulture training programs at prisons and drug treatment facilities.
When you meet someone with expertise and experience like Lisa’s, you just have to sit down and ask a few questions. We chatted with Lisa about how she nurtures future nurturers, the scientific benefits of growing young, and what she thinks of Gardenuity.
What’s your horticulture background like?
I grew up in a pretty agricultural community, and my family has a cattle ranch, but I didn’t ever think about horticulture as a degree or career. So when I came to A&M, I thought I was more interested in communications, writing, or radio — or something.
Then, I took a horticulture class as an elective…and I just loved it. I found myself in the field. I took a couple more classes and thought, “This is what I really want to do.” I particularly enjoyed the people-and-plant interaction side of it. My passion primarily deals with the impact plants have on people.
What is Junior Master Gardeners and what’s your role in the program?
Our mission is to grow good kids, and we’re using the garden as a vehicle to do that. I’m the director of the program, and it actually started here at Texas A&M about 19 years ago. When I first started, I was teaching horticulture at a federal prison. One day, the inmates’ children were able to come in, and the parents wanted to start gardening with their children. It struck me that children should be growing.
When we started, we thought that Junior Master Gardeners would be popular, but even our staff didn’t know how big it could get. It very quickly grew outside the borders of Texas.
Now, the program is in all 50 states and ten countries with very active junior gardening programs. Similar to the adult Master Gardeners program, the primary aim is to teach children about horticulture. We have a variety of curriculum — the kids do community service projects, we educate them on different career opportunities in the field, and we expose them to the idea of a horticulture degree.
In your experience, what effect does growing have on kids?
I think, for young people, there’s magic in planting a thing and watching it grow. Plants only germinate when they’re ready, and it’s one of the few things in life where kids have to wait and nurture before they see results. One of the things we’ve seen with people who participate is — not only increased knowledge about plants — but empowerment from sharing what they’ve learned with others.
We’ve seen kids take on a lot of leadership roles. Plus, being able to give back to their communities has been a wonderful experience — the kids really feel like they have a vested interest and are doing something to help.
Being tied to a university, we’ve done a lot of research. We were recently part of a five year USDA research looking at obesity in children. One of the things they found is that gardening has a reach into the home of the child. Over two years, we saw an increase in gardening at home with families, children cooking with their families, eating vegetables more often, and an overall reduction in body mass for children.
These were all kids coming from low socioeconomic families, so to be able to see what was happening because of a little experience in the garden— not only for the children but for their families — was incredible. What we learned is that, if they grow it, they’re more willing to taste, try, and cook it.
As a discipline, we really needed that research. Those of us that work with gardening directly know the results. I saw it when I taught in the prison — I saw the impact it makes on people. But being able to measure the impact and know that gardening’s benefits are provable is validating and motivating for the field.
Why is the future of growing important to you?
For me, gardening is life. Every day that I get up and I experience growing, I have a better day because of it. I see the difference it makes in the lives of other people. And as our world gets so busy and so much more concrete and the opportunities to connect with others dwindle, the simple act of planting and growing helps people disconnect and re-center themselves. It’s something that people can do for a lifetime.
It’s more than just growing plants. I hope people learn a lot about horticulture, but we’re really about growing good kids, and we can use the garden to do that. It’s about growing healthy, giving, grounded, compassionate children through the garden.
What are your thoughts on Gardenuity?
In some of the work we do with youth leaders, we discover that they like the idea of gardening, but it’s scary because they don’t know how to begin. So having a resource to connect them with experienced growers can help them — whether it’s a master gardener or using products like y’all have. I think some of our schools and teachers would be interested in your products — especially the support behind the products that helps growers be confidence and success-rate.
The work that y’all are doing is just unbelievable. I love seeing the support you give to gardeners to help them succeed. It’s very creative and very important.
Lisa is someone we admire greatly — the work she does is incredibly important. We all have a role in nurturing our future growers, and from what we’ve seen, we’re optimistic about the future!