Planted firmly on their knees in front of a 2-foot-wide garden, 10-year-olds Brianne Garza and Nathaniel Wilson busily dug through clumps of soil in front of them. They’d spent the previous half-hour happily plucking fresh vegetables, but Nathaniel was having trouble finding enough potatoes.
“Here, you can have this one,” Brianne said as she examined a dirt-covered spud and then plunked it into a cardboard box holding Nathaniel’s other vegetables.
It’s rare to see kids excited about an armload of veggies, let alone scrambling for them, but on Thursday that was the case at Friendship House, at 3123 Eighth Ave. S.
Friendship House is a Christian organization that serves at-risk youth and families on the South Side.
Since March of this year, a group of about 10 kids has maintained a garden there, and Thursday was their first big harvest, with a half-dozen of them plucking and pulling everything from fresh tomatoes to large yellow squash.
“My own garden at home isn’t even doing this well,” said Jeromy Emerling, Friendship House’s executive director. “It’s really been a phenomenal experience for these kids.”
The kids, all in fourth through sixth grades, started working on the garden — which is carefully gridded out to maximize a small amount of space — in March. They had help from the Master Gardeners through the Montana State University Billings Extension Service, but the kids planned, designed, built and maintained the entire 2-by-67-foot garden on their own for nearly six months.
They planted onions, radishes, pumpkins, sunflowers, jalapenos and numerous other goodies and have been nurturing them all summer, with each youngster putting in at least an hour a week, in addition to classes on plant life.
“After this, it doesn’t taste the same from the store,” said 11-year-old Tanya Billington as she munched on a cherry tomato. “Actually, I’ve never liked tomatoes until now.”
Many of the kids at Friendship House come from difficult home situations and can sometimes be tough to connect with, Emerling said. With the garden project, kids who showed a passion for it were the ones who were selected to participate and it did a lot of good opening them up and allowing them to bond with everyone involved, he said.
“When we started, we said, ‘This is your project, you’ll be responsible for it,’” he said. “Now with the harvest, in a tangible way, they feel like they’re providing for their families.”
Each one of the kids carted home a box brimming with vegetables for their families.
“It feels nice,” Brianne said of her work with the garden. “You just feel proud of yourself.”