DADE CITY — For five years now, John Balogh, guidance counselor at Rodney B. Cox Elementary School in Dade City, has mentored students on how to plant, tend and harvest garden vegetables in a patch of ground on campus.
Balogh formed the Green Thumb Garden Club in 2008.
“It was really by accident,” he said. At the time, some students would have to wait after school because there were not enough buses to take them home.
“I was trying to find something productive for them to do,” he explained.
As a guidance counselor, he started a program where the students learned to work together and nurture something — contributing to their emotional and social development.
On a recent morning, it was time for the students to pick collards. Balogh showed the students how to make a container to hold the collard greens and then marched them into the garden in between the rows.
He instructed the attentive students on how to take only the outer leaves so the plant could continue to grow.
“The children love, love, love going to the garden club,” said school principal Yvonne Reins. “Mr. Balogh has stirred a lot of interest.”
“We have excellent student participation,” Balogh said. “I have about 55 to 60 kids in the club.”
To be in the club, students need to fill out an application that shows parental permission and the recommendation of their teacher. “If they are not up to speed academically or behaviorally, they have to get there [to join],” Balogh said.
Reins said the students have a sense of ownership over the piece of land they garden.
The land is a 30-by-60-foot plot filled with plants grown in a variety of ways. There are vegetables growing as in-ground plants, in hydroponic towers, in containers and in raised beds. Balogh took students on a field trip about two years ago to X Farms in Sumter County to learn hydroponics.
“Some of these techniques they can do at their own house,” Balogh said.
The garden grows collards, kale, tomatoes, broccoli strawberries, banana peppers, green beans and blueberries.
The students are not only learning to grow plants, but they are learning to give.
“One of the things we do with some vegetables is to donate them to a ministry that does a meal every Sunday,” Balogh said. The Love One Another soup kitchen in Dade City receives most of the produce.
He said donating to people in need is more poignant when considering that about 98 percent of the children at Cox Elementary are on free and reduced lunch.
“We’re trying to teach kids to give back regardless of your station in life. There’s always something you can contribute,” Balogh said.
Ana Colon has been in the garden club for “a few years now.” Ana, a 9-year-old fourth-grader, likes to water the plants.
Before the garden club, she had not tried gardening. “I’m actually trying to make my garden at my house right how,” she said.
Alexa Cosme, 7, said she has learned that plants can help you survive. Alexa and her twin brother, Alex, are members of the garden club.
Alex was the first to join in kindergarten and Alexa joined the next year because she saw he was having so much fun. They are both in second grade this year.
At home, Alex said he has an aloe plant, but Alexa still has to earn her green thumb gardening at home.
“I try, but they all die,” she said.
Balogh said he wants to get parents involved in a larger garden project on campus.