By Joy Kraft
The Cincinnati Enquirer
A lone apple tree spreads its umbrella of shade over a scruffy lot at 1411 Race St. between two turn-of-the-century buildings, one boarded up, the other with barred windows. The tree has survived 14 years amid sweltering asphalt and city exhaust in Over-the-Rhine.
Volunteer Heather Schmiedicke sprays children with a hose.
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More than that. It has thrived, arms heavy with small, sour apples, trying desperately to outlast grabby hands eager for fruit that's barely had time to reach a blush.
Underneath, little Dell Johnson is on a mission in the Race Street Children's Garden run by the Civic Garden Center.
"Lookin' for a worm," whispers the pint-size 3-year-old in blue plaid short overalls, dragging a trowel almost as long as his mud-smeared legs.
He inspects the rumpled soil, squatting over the sides of the wood-framed bed, stabbing at the dirt.
No matter that there's nothing growing there. It's a digging garden.
He tugs off his rubber-fingered garden gloves for the precision of the fingertip hunt.
"Looky, there's one," he says, plucking the wriggler and holding it ever so gently for a nose-end inspection, then dropping it and plunking a trowel full of dirt on top.
"He's gonna peek out again. Watch."
"They are endlessly fascinated by worms," says Heather Schmiedicke of Park Hills, the youth education coordinator of the 20 or so "Summer Sprouts" here today. "They are just as excited by the 20th worm of the day as the first."
This is one of four plots (others are 406 E. 13th St., Pendleton; Martin Luther King Park in North Avondale and Nassau Street in Walnut Hills) staffed by volunteers two hours a day, two days a week with the lofty goal of "enriching lives through gardening," says Schmiedicke.
"We're providing a safe educational opportunity for kids who might not otherwise have exposure to green space in a garden," she says. "We cover a little of everything from nutrition to cooperation, teamwork, nature, respect for the living things. Gardening is just the vehicle."
Robert Speakes (left), Marvin Coates, and Davon Hardy wash apples.
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But it's more of a camp plopped in the center of a hot city than an outdoor classroom.
Kids scurry around, some planting but most weeding this time of year. There are a dozen raised beds with squash, sunflowers, green beans, tomatoes, flowers, snap peas. There's also an African Heritage Garden, a star-shaped plot bordered with the symbolic colors red, green and black and planted with peanuts, cotton, watermelon, okra, cucumbers, geraniums - "vegetables and plants brought to America from Africa," Schmiedicke says.
Noisy trucks lumber by the chain-linked lot fronted with daylilies, lambs ears, a butterfly bush and a struggling patch of impatiens. A half-dozen men seek shade from the 90-degree heat on a next-door stoop. Music pounds from a screenless window across the street. Firecrackers rattle the afternoon and sirens give volunteers pause.
The kids barely notice.
"We're getting ready to plant here, but we have to pull the weeds out first," says Brenda Miller, 13, of Florence, a sprout alumna who has stopped by today along with brother, Antonio Allen, 12. He started working the Race Street garden in 1996.
"Weeding is kinda boring," Brenda says, "but we can't pull things out 'til we ask Miss Heather what they are."
"I like the weeding and the planting," Antonio says.
"Running in the sprinkler when work is done and snack time," are Brenda's favorite green-thumb activities.
Hunting for weeds and worms
Charlie Schott of Cheviot is directing this plot, one of a dozen volunteers today. "First we have to get rid of all the weeds, then level it," he directs.
Children pluck trowels and garden gloves from a box and dig, extracting unwelcome plants. Lips curled in concentration, Kayla Wilson, 9, joins Charlie, Brenda and Antonio.
Then little Dell comes by. Weeds are nothing to him.
He scrutinizes the soil and dabbles. But as the others begin popping zinnia-like plants from plastic containers and setting them in holes, Dell drops his gloves, snatches someone else's trowel and eyes another plot and its potential crawler harvest.
"It's looking beautiful, ladies and gentlemen," says Schmiedicke from across the way.
She bends over a boy with "Willie" on his name tag by the street-side gate.
"You have to have a permission slip signed to stay today," she says gently. "I have given you three. You need to get it signed. Go now and bring it back."
Willie hangs his head and walks out the gate.
In the Heritage Garden, volunteers Patty Grady of Northside, Tracy Simonson of Price Hill and Murial Renfrow of Madeira, with Ramone Johnson, 5, are temporarily stumped trying to distinguish the peanut plants from the cotton and the weeds. Ramone, though, is happy worm-hunting, like his brother, Dell.
"Ramone, those worms must like you. Look how many you've found," Grady says.
Willie pushes open the gate minus a permission slip.
His mother doesn't have a pen to sign the slip, he says. Schmiedicke sighs and digs into garden gloves, clipboards, pencils and crayons and sends him off again with a pen.
Volunteer Connie Booth of Anderson Township marks the children's heights along the support beam of a deck used for crafts and snack time, adding their names and the date.
"Plants will grow this summer just like you if you eat lots of vegetables," Booth says. "We'll keep track here and measure how much you grow later."
Eager kids stand tall, some on tiptoe, to be included. There's some squabbling, especially among siblings, and reassurance that everyone will be recorded.
But first, snack time.
Snacks, crafts and water hose
"Willie," who turns out to be Kijana Bunkley, is back with his paper - and pen - signed just in time for green grapes, watermelon, snack bars and Freaky Fruit Punch. But only after everyone's seated.
It takes awhile.
"Can someone help Dell sit down? Thank you Karen. Good job."
"Be nice to that tree. Don't pull on it. We'll get an apple later."
Booth sings a song about a tomato sitting on a railroad track to giggles, then asks during clean-up time what part of their snacks are compost materials and what part is garbage. They answer correctly.
After treats, everyone gathers at the apple tree in two groups, one making butterfly-shaped name tags decorated with beans and seeds, one making beaded bracelets in the colors of the earth.
"You're stepping on my beads."
"Get your feet off my string."
Beans fall to the ground. Glue oozes into the dusty earth and everyone gets dirty.
Tending a vegetable and flower garden short of four hours a week (outside of snack and craft time) is difficult.
"It would be ideal to be here every day, but we'd need more volunteers and more staff," Schmiedicke says.
No doubt the kids would show up every day. At the first sight of the sun-yellow Subaru Baja, a half-truck, half-car on loan from Subaru of Beechmont, they come running.
So far, the group has harvested sugar snap peas and radishes. "We didn't have a lot of takers on them, but we did get one brave kid to try a sugar snap pea, then everyone wanted to try," Schmiedicke says.
"They are fascinated. We planted tomatoes. They were not real sure of what was going on until they saw the tomato on the vine. Then they realized it comes from a plant, not a grocery store shelf."
But there's no hard sell on the apples.
"It's the apple tree that they are drawn to," Schmiedicke says. "They've been eating green apples the past two weeks, but we are trying to save some so they can see them turn red. They'd have the tree stripped by now if we let them. It teaches them patience."
Schmiedicke mans the hose and makes an arc of water for the kids to run through, sometime lowering it in a game of water tag.
Kala Chappell, 10, with the coveted watering can in hand, doles out a water ration to newly planted flowers, barely spilling a drop.
"Everyone wants to water," Schmiedicke says.
Except Dell and Ramone.
They're still prowling for worms.
Civic Garden Center helps Sprouts grow
The Summer Sprouts children's gardening program is part of the Civic Garden Center's Neighborhood Gardens Program. It is funded by the Greater Cincinnati Foundation's Summertime Kids program, the Junior Woman's Club of Wyoming, grants from the National Gardening Association and city funds through a Community Development Block Grant.
More summer fun
The Cincinnati Park Board is taking live animals, games, crafts, hikes and other hands-on nature activities to city kids. This is the 10th year for the Nature Next Door program in Avondale, Bond Hill, East Price Hill, Mount Auburn and the West End.
Last year, the program reached 2,600 youngsters.
The program, funded by a grant from the Ladislas and Vilma Segoe Family Foundation, will be at the following neighborhoods 10:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m. each week:
Mondays, through Aug. 1, Inwood Park, Mount Auburn
Tuesdays, through Aug. 2, Dempsey Park, East Price Hill
Wednesdays, through Aug. 3, Bond Hill Park
Thursdays, through Aug. 4, Martin Luther King Park, Avondale
Fridays, through Aug. 5, Dyer Park and Sprayground, the West End
Information: 321-6070 (www.cinci-parks.org)
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