Students harvesting rewards of gardening

Seventh-grader Chauncey Rogers was so interested in his first gardening experiences at school, he asked if he could have a plant to take home.

He dug a hole for the collards in his backyard, gave them a good watering and has kept an eye on them ever since.

Chauncey considers it an experiment.

"I was curious," he said. "I wanted to eat it, and see how it looks as it grows."

He's one of a dozen youngsters getting hands-on lessons in gardening, nutrition and being good neighbors through the volunteer efforts of Clarence McNeil, a lifelong gardener, and Irma Smith-Lowman, an enthusiastic novice.

This fall, the two started a community garden at Anna Boyd School, a short-term alternative school for fourth- through seventh-graders in Richland 2.

In September, the kids cultivated five plots on the playground.

Now, they're harvesting the leafy greens and giving them to neighbors up the street in State Park, a neighborhood that maintains strong connections to the school.

"It's fun and then it's hard at the same time," said seventh-grader D.J. Drumwright, who said he got involved because he liked the idea of giving away produce he'd grown himself.

At 71, McNeil knew he wanted to work with children.

Lowman knew he had a lush garden in his backyard.

A retired teacher, Lowman had an idea that gardening would appeal to kids - but she also knew she needed an expert to make a project successful.

So she recruited McNeil, the husband of a friend.

"He had just given me some beautiful tomatoes, and I thought, 'This is science. This is math,'" Lowman said.

"It's nutrition. It's healthy living."

Principal Kelli Johnson said the two are good volunteers because they come around consistently but they stay flexible.

They move among the kids easily, calm and patient.

Their presence and their personalities convey to the youngsters that they care about them, believe in them and expect them to do well, Johnson said.

"They not only have cultivated plants but they've cultivated people," she said.

McNeil said working with the young people has taught him some things, too.

It's made him think more analytically about what he likes about gardening.

"It's just interesting to watch it grow, especially when you pick it and start feeding people," he said. "It's a pleasure."

He was happy that the young people who joined the project seemed to enjoy getting outdoors.

"Good kids, and easy to work with," he said. "They actually had their hands down in the dirt up to their elbows."

The community garden was funded by The Links, a service organization that has adopted the Anna Boyd School as its focus.

Already, McNeil is looking at doubling the size of the spring garden.

He's planning two or three different kinds of peppers, tomatoes, early cabbage and onions, squash and butterbeans.

He's itching to get started.

Seventh-grader Ryan Champagnie might want to remind McNeil about one of the virtues of working in the garden.

"You have to have patience."