Excited chatter filled the cool autumn air as fourth-graders at Hampton Cove Elementary School in Madison County waited in line for a chance to toss a shovel of soil on top of the weeds, leaves and vegetable peels piled high in their compost bin. While the students took turns scooping soil from a wheelbarrow, volunteers and teachers quizzed the enthusiastic class about composting and other lessons the students are learning from the Junior Master Gardener program.”I like seeing what all goes in the compost pile, but my favorite part was planting the seeds in the garden and seeing my plant come up. It’s cool,” said Collin Parker, 10.Collin is among thousands of students statewide who are learning about gardening and nature as they earn Junior Master Gardener (JMG) certificates. Developed by Texas Cooperative Extension and the Texas A&M University System, JMG is a 4-H youth gardening program designed to engage children in hands-on learning experiences that promote a love of gardening and an appreciation for the environment while enhancing academic studies. “Most of these kids have never grown anything before,” said Tallapoosa County Extension Agent Shane Harris, who coordinates the JMG program in Alabama. “When they plant a seed and it comes up, several things are being accomplished,” Harris added. “First, they get the sense of accomplishment that they did something. They can show the vegetables to their parents and teachers. They also are gaining responsibility because they have to take care of the garden. And, they are learning the scientific background behind gardening.”The JMG level 1 curriculum is targeted to children in grades 3-5, while the level 2 program is geared to children in grades 6-8. Using teacher guides and gardening handbooks developed by Texas Cooperative Extension, each JMG group works at its own pace. The gardeners cover such topics as: plant growth and development; soils and water; ecology and environmental horticulture; insects and diseases; landscape horticulture; fruits and nuts; vegetables and herbs; and life skills and career exploration. Harris said the Alabama Cooperative Extension System worked with Texas Cooperative Extension to bring the program to Alabama last year. Initially, JMG groups were started in 15 pilot counties across the state, but the program has grown to include hundreds of clubs–most led by community volunteers.Madison County Extension Agents Kenneth Creel and Tyrone Smith were among the first to “plant” JMG clubs in Alabama.”What got me turned on to the Junior Master Gardener program was I had a vision of having gardens at as many schools as possible in the county,” Creel said. “We wanted to get kids back interested in gardening. This program not only teaches the kids about gardening but all of the natural sciences.”Today, Madison County has 17 active JMG clubs, which are scattered among public and private schools as well as home schools and after-school programs. Creel said most of the groups are coordinated by volunteers who have completed the Extension System’s adult Master Gardener program. Alabama’s Master Gardener program took root in Madison County back in 1981 when Extension System personnel decided to offer an intensive gardening course to the public. In the years since, more than 800 people have completed the 40-hour course in Madison County, and many now volunteer to answer horticulture questions from other homeowners at the county Extension office.Master Gardener Betsy Banner is among the volunteers teaching the JMG program at Hampton Cove Elementary School. She said the children love working in the raised-bed garden, and the teachers appreciate how the program encourages students to use what they learn in their academic classes.”It teaches children in a fun way,” Ms. Banner said. “Kids sometimes struggle in class, but everyone can contribute here. It’s a way of reaching kids in a non-traditional way. It also gives them confidence in exploring their world.”In addition to science lessons about seed germination, composting and recycling, Ms. Banner said the students learn patience because they have to wait to see the fruits of their labor. She also stresses the importance of reading and writing during her biweekly school visits. “I tell the kids that my most important gardening tool is my reading glasses,” said Ms. Banner.Ms. Banner and other volunteers divide each fourth-grade class into two groups for their JMG lessons. While one group works in the garden, the other reviews science concepts related to gardening. The school’s fall garden includes potatoes, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, radishes, carrots, beets, garlic, lettuce and strawberries.Ms. Banner said community support has been tremendous, with the local Boy Scout troop, garden club and hardware store all donating time or materials. Teacher Brooke Stephenson said the students couldn’t be more proud of their garden.”Every day at recess, the first thing they do is run out here to check their garden,” said Ms. Stephenson. “We are trying to be finished by Thanksgiving. We would like for each child to be able to take a vegetable home for Thanksgiving.”Ms. Stephenson said the JMG program fits well into her science curriculum, but it also gives the students a chance to practice their math skills. In addition, she requires the students to document the growth of the plants in their garden on a classroom chart.Hampton Cove Elementary School, however, is just one example of how JMG is cultivating the minds of young people. In Huntsville’s inner city, teachers and volunteers are incorporating JMG into a comprehensive effort to revitalize the neighborhood around Lincoln Elementary School.Master Gardener Jack Carrigy has been volunteering at Lincoln for seven years. So when one of the teachers mentioned starting a JMG club at the school, he jumped at the opportunity.”I thought it was a brilliant idea,” Carrigy said. “If we could teach these children how to raise plants, they could take the produce home. Most of the families in Lincoln are low-income. I thought this would be a great way for the children to learn discipline because the plants have to be nurtured–they have to be watered and fertilized. The students get the reward of taking produce home to help feed their families.”At Lincoln Elementary School, the JMG group has raised-bed gardens as well as a greenhouse, which was built by a former Lincoln principal, the late Jim Black. The Alabama Wildlife Federation also donated birdhouses and plants for a butterfly garden, and Carrigy hopes to let the children landscape some of the streets in the neighborhood using plants from their greenhouse.”The young people seem to be very receptive to improving their neighborhood,” Carrigy said. “If we can change the kids, hopefully they will become ambassadors of change.”Across the state, in Moulton, that’s exactly what happened when Judy Kerr and Vickey Lundy introduced the JMG program to their gifted class at Lawrence County High School. Not only did the students use their newfound knowledge and skills to landscape part of the school grounds, they also started a campaign for a state bottle- and can-recycling law based on an environmental impact study of their campus.”I can’t say we’ve ever had another unit that interested the kids to the point that they would go out of their way to bring in materials and do extra work,” said Ms. Lundy. “Many gifted kids don’t go outside much. Most of them said this was the first time they had ever touched soil. The JMG program has opened up a different world for them.”Harris said the response of Lawrence County students to the JMG program is not unusual. In fact, a survey conducted by Texas Cooperative Extension showed 64 percent of teachers said JMG encouraged students to perform community service projects outside the classroom. In addition, 75 percent said the program increased youth interest in science, and 70 percent said it enhanced classroom educational programs and contributed to higher academic standards.Baldwin County Extension Agent Cynthia Knowlton said public school teachers in her county as well as home schoolers already are seeing the benefits of JMG. “Teachers just really love the program. They’ve incorporated it into their course of study. We talk about measurements, and the students get math from that. They learn about science when we do plant identification, and some groups are doing leaf rubbings, which is art,” said Ms. Knowlton. “One of the greatest benefits is the students are learning about plant science and ultimately about where food comes from,” she added. “They learn that food doesn’t just appear in the grocery store. There is a process that involves the soil, farmers, harvesting and processing. The kids love it because it’s hands-on rather than being a class where they are just sitting there being taught. With the Junior Master Gardener program, they can actually work in the garden.”For more information about the Junior Master Gardener program, contact your local Alabama Cooperative Extension System office or visit www.aces.edu/jmg. Junior Master Gardener, JMG and associated logo designs are registered service marks of Texas Cooperative Extension and the Texas A&M University System.