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Dirt, rolly-pollies part of award-winning gardening program

By Scott Weybright, College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resources

kids explore dirt, worms, insectsSPOKANE, Wash. – Worms and rolly-pollies work great at getting kids interested in gardening, and digging for these critters in a box of dirt is a big hit.

That’s one lesson the Spokane County Master Gardeners have learned over the past 11 years of their Garden in a Box program, which will receive the International Search for Excellence Award at the International Master Gardeners conference in July.

The program, designed by Spokane County Master Gardeners, sends volunteers to elementary after-school programs throughout Spokane Public Schools to teach kids about gardening and raising plants.

No-budget beginnings

“Our presentations involve activities and interactions with insects, compost and several other topics,” said Susan Malm, a Master Gardener volunteer. “We had no budget when we started, so we made most of the materials from scrap and created hands-on activities.”

The Garden in a Box program has seven different subject areas, which volunteers present in an annual cycle to the kindergarten through sixth graders in the after-school program. That way, children who attend every year will learn something new each time.

Good, bad and ugly

One of their annual programs, for example, is called “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” and focuses on invertebrate animals that live in gardens. Volunteers talk about beneficial, harmful and neutral insects, and bring in a few live examples. Like pill bugs.

“That is the all-time kid favorite,” Malm said of the insects, often called ‘rolly-pollies’ by kids. “We give them plastic spoons to dig around with, and it’s hard to pull them away because they have so much fun.”

At the end of each program, the kids get to plant seeds in a pot to take home with them.

“That’s an integral part of the program, making sure they have something to take home and watch develop and grow,” Malm said.

Sowing seeds

This spring, the program centered around seeds. Volunteers spent the winter refurbishing the bins for the seed program, which includes large models showing the three parts of a seed. Then in the schools, they showed students the oversized artificial seeds.

“We gave them soaked lima beans to dissect, so they could find the parts they’d seen in the models,” Malm said. “They also planted real seeds, and we talked about what a plant needs to germinate. Then they took the pots home.”

Overwhelming success

Garden in a Box has generated overwhelming positive feedback, from kids, parents, and volunteers alike, said Tim Kohlhauff, a Washington State University Extension coordinator. That’s one reason they submitted the program to International Master Gardeners for an excellence award.

“We wanted more people to learn about what our volunteers are doing,” said Kohlhauff, who oversees the Spokane County Master Gardener program. “It has an impact on these kids, and it’s relatively inexpensive and easily replicable. We’re hoping other groups can take what we’ve learned and develop their programs.”

For Malm, getting the chance to volunteer with kids is worth the time and energy invested.

“It’s so much fun to watch a kid who’s never touched a bug pick up a rolly-polly or pick up worms during our compost program,” she said. “All of our materials are hands-on, and the hardest part is prying them away when we’re finished.”

The program is also available to youth groups and other programs around Spokane County.


Media Contact:

Tim Kohlhauff, WSU/Spokane County Extension, 509-477-2172,

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