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Discovery Campers Go Green with Union County Master Gardeners

Union County Master Gardener Susan Marino-Jennings (of Mountainside) shows campers (l-r) Sophia, Isabella and Rania from Camp Discovery (Plainfield) how to “pot up” some of the pretty begonias that campers were allowed to take home after their day out “going green” with the Master Gardeners on July 19.  The MGs hosted 14 Discovery campers, ages 6-12, in their Trailside Demonstration Gardens, plus Camp Director Eric Halpern and six camp counselors.  Campers toured the MGs’ bountiful gardens, then rotated among six “green” activity stations developed by the MGs. 29 Master Gardeners and Master Tree Stewards participated.  Halpern, who teaches science in Plainfield during the school year, noted that, “children who attend Camp Discovery are from a very urban environment, so this was a unique opportunity to enjoy a more rural setting and witness how herbs, fruits and vegetables are grown.”  Credits: Copy: T.J. Karns. Photo by Master Gardener Ken Ilgavisis

The stifling July heat wave did not stifle the enthusiasm of campers and counselors from Camp Discovery (Plainfield) on their recent outing at the Trailside Demonstration Gardens cultivated by the Union County Master Gardeners.  On July 19, Camp Discovery Director Eric Halpern and his group of 14 campers (ages 6 to 12) and six counselors returned to the Demo Gardens at Watchung Reservation in Mountainside for a morning of education and enrichment.  The gardens were flush with beautiful trees, shrubs, perennials, and brimming with a summer’s bounty of herbs, vegetables and berries. 

A total of 29 Master Gardener and Master Tree Steward volunteers guided the campers through six activity stations developed by the Master Gardeners and on garden tours.  The campers also learned how to transplant begonias grown from seeds, and got to take home their newly potted plants.

The event, directed by Master Gardener Laurie Westra, was hosted by the Children’s Program Committee of the Union County Master Gardener program. 

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Fitting in well with the Master Gardeners’ mission, this year’s theme at Camp Discovery is “Going Green.”  All program activities are anchored around the theme of environmental stewardship, focusing on the need to “reuse, recycle and reduce.”  At the Nature’s Paints station, Counselor Kenyetta Knight asked the campers how this activity fit into their theme.  They quickly responded that using flowers and leaves instead of paints and crayons to color their art work was a great example of reuse, and reduced the need to buy supplies.

Likewise, when campers asked MG Fred Taylor about the big, reusable plastic water jugs surrounding his raised tomato beds, he instructed that, “tomatoes won’t grow until the soil is warmer than 55 degrees, so the sun warms the water which radiates into the beds to warm the soil—in other words, we’re using solar heat!.” 

As always, one of the best lessons in recycling, Taylor’s huge compost pile, held the campers’ attention and generated great excitement.

Touching and tasting were also important factors in the day’s activities.  At the Herb and Harry Potter Gardens, the kids were encouraged to taste Egyptian onion, bronze fennel and lovage, and to avoid poisonous plants like hellebore and wolf bane.  Likewise, in the Berry Patch Garden, campers tasted seaberries and wolfberries (also known as Goji berries) and learned about their high antioxidant value.

Camper T. J. Hasben enjoyed the Terrific Tree station and commented that “this pine cone is a big as a football” when he held the sugar pine cone up as if to throw a pass!

After the tours, the campers were given butterfly nets and encouraged to roam freely through the garden to catch butterflies.  Shouts of excitement went out when one camper caught a praying mantis.  All insects were later released back into the garden.

At the end of the day, Camp Director Halpern said, “We appreciate this very informative, interactive and hands-on educational experience.” Halpern, who teaches science in Plainfield during the school year, noted that, “children who attend Camp Discovery are from a very urban environment, so this was a unique opportunity to enjoy a more rural setting and witness how herbs, fruits and vegetables are grown.”

Halpern and his counselors were also impressed to learn that the Master Gardeners have cultivated nearly 20,000 pounds of fresh produce for donation to local food pantries and soup kitchens.  “This enriches the nutrition of Union County residents,” said Halpern, “and gives our campers a real-world example of the benefits of volunteerism and good land use.”

The Camp Discovery program is held at the United Church of Christ – Congregational, 220 W. 7th Street in Plainfield.  Funding is per donations to the United Plainfield Community Development Corporation.  All Plainfield elementary school children are invited to attend. Fees are based on family income and size.  To learn more, get your organization involved, or make a contribution to help fund next year’s camp, please check the outreach tab on the church’s website at or call 908-755-8658.

The Rutgers Master Gardeners of Union County are trained volunteers who are celebrating their 25th year as providers of gardening, land stewardship and horticultural therapy services in Union County.  The program is headquartered as part of the Rutgers Cooperative Extension in the County building located at 300 North Avenue East in Westfield.  For more information, call 908-654-9854 or visit http://mastergardeners-uc/org.  Need help with gardening issues?  Call the Garden Helpline at 908-654-9852. 


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