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Lilly Boehland sits in front of her garden with a bag full of freshly-picked green beans that she's about to use in a salad for "Dinner From Dirt." She also grows carrots, cabbage, onion, tomatoes and other vegetables. Marie Nitke/FOCUS

Growing up gardening: 4-H Garden Club teaches kids all the tricks, from plant to plate

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It was a feast that would make anybody's mouth water: A long countertop covered from corner to corner with big bowls and dishes full of fresh, colorful foods.

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There was a sweet carrot-and-pineapple concoction, a crisp broccoli-cauliflower salad, strawberry and blueberry yogurt parfaits, tossed pasta salads with various greens, breadsticks topped with dill, basil and thyme, and loads of other healthy goodies.

Hard to believe this was what they call, "Dinner From Dirt."

An unceremonious name for such a tasty and creative menu, but accurate - everything on that countertop was grown in a garden, literally pulled from the dirt before being made into the day's dinner.

And the whole process, from seed to plate, was done by kids.

Held last Friday, "Dinner From Dirt" was served to friends and family of kids in the East Otter Tail County 4-H Garden Club. The kids have been growing their own fruits and vegetables all summer, and have learned how to make healthy meals using them.

"Dinner From Dirt" was the culmination of this summer's program: the kids' chance to show off the fruits of their labor.

"We're growing kids, 4-H style," said Janet Malone, program coordinator for the local 4-H, of the Garden Club.

The club helps kids "grow" in many senses of the word - they grow fruits, vegetables and flowers, they grow their knowledge of horticulture and nutrition, they grow their skills in the kitchen, and they grow a better understanding of where food comes from.

The kids have been meeting at the fairgrounds every Friday for the last six weeks to plant and tend to their gardens - with the help of some area experts.

Master Gardener Carol Rethemeier, for example, has worked with the kids on such things as irrigation techniques, pest control, and optimal planting and harvesting times. She said she tries to let the kids answer their own questions, encouraging them to 'learn as they grow.'

"We try to work with some science and we also do things horticulturally," she said.

The kids each have their own plot in the 4-H gardens at the fairgrounds, in which they grow vegetables of their choosing. They also work together on flowerbeds at the fairgrounds and around Perham.

Master Gardeners are trained volunteers through the University of Minnesota Extension, and youth gardening is the focus of their education efforts. Kids who gain some experience in the children's garden will eventually elevate to Junior Master Gardener status. At that point, they take on a larger plot of their own and help mentor the newer gardeners.

"The goal is to help kids learn gardening skills, but also to see the connection between sun, soil, seeds and how to benefit from that," said Malone. "We're also promoting healthy eating, healthy living. We try to teach kids about the nutritional value of their foods."

Curriculum for the program comes from Texas A&M University.

Planning and preparing for "Dinner From Dirt" was a true demonstration of everything the kids have learned. They grew the food, and they spent the morning in the kitchen, making the meal.

Benny Minten, for example, stood at a counter chopping celery for a green pea salad. Drawing his fingers back from the blade, he paused to offer a valuable piece of advice: "There's one rule here: Go home with the same amount of fingers you came with."

Fortunately, the program has a very good safety record.

When asked what his favorite thing to grow in the garden is, Minten couldn't choose just one: "I like all fresh vegetables," he said.

Lilly Boehland couldn't pick just one, either. She simply likes "that I get to take some home and use some."

Others were quick to identify their favorites.

Zoe Olsen, who has been gardening for the last five years and is now a Junior Master Gardener, said she loves growing green beans. While making breadsticks on Friday, she explained that she likes to blanch the beans so they can be eaten through the winter.

Her breadstick-making partner, Paige Rourke, said her favorite thing about gardening is watching things grow, and discovering the scientific processes behind that: "I like learning about the germination and stuff," she said.

Ben Hendrickx, who helped prepare a pasta salad for the dinner, said enthusiastically that his favorite thing to grow "is celery, because you can see it growing up and can also dip it in ranch or peanut butter and eat it!"

Some of the kids, like Joshua Tabery, have more than one garden to pick from. Tabery has his garden at the fairgrounds, in addition to a garden at home and a third garden at his grandmother's.

"I just like it," he said of gardening. "I like it all."

Parents usually like it, too, if only for one simple reason - as Rethemeier explained, "We're finding that, if children grow it, they'll eat it."

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