By Carol South, Special to the Record-Eagle
---- — The summer's searing dry weather is forgotten in the lush confines of the Grand Traverse Children's Garden.
Thursday evening children and families, volunteers and organizers celebrated another successful season of growing and learning. The party was held against the backdrop of vibrant garden beds filled with vegetables, fruit and flowers, all planted, tended and harvested by young hands during the ten-week program.
Drought, what drought? The Children's Garden features spigots and hoses so young users and volunteers could keep their produce going.
Sofia Call, 8, tugged her dad to the Central Neighborhood plot and eagerly showed him tomatoes, peas and other delights that have thrived this summer.
"My favorite part is eating," she said.
Warren Call appreciated the results of his daughter's and other neighborhood children's enthusiasm, hard work and perseverance.
"There's fresh stuff for us — if it makes it home," he said.
At another garden bed nearby, two friends — Jolie Smart and Megan Lautner, both 8 — enjoyed sharing the fruits of their summer labor. With a twist: unlike many young gardeners, Megan did not snack from the vine.
"I liked that we got to learn a lot of stuff about gardening and that we got to pick our own vegetables," she said. "But I don't like vegetables."
In her second year gardening with other Grand Traverse County Civic Center summer campers, Jolie enjoyed the fresh noshing. Her favorites were tomatoes just picked.
"We planted from seed, I like that we get to eat it," she said.
Nestled behind the Traverse Area District Library's Woodmere facility, the Children's Garden drew between 140-150 children this year. Participants worked 13 beds as well as raised beds for children with physical challenges.
"It's just a connection with nature and to where real food comes from," said Kathy Coffin, who guided children from Central neighborhood as they cared for their plot.
The veteran educator has incorporated gardening into her curriculum before and finds the experience invaluable for children, many of whom have minimal to no gardening opportunities.
"They start with a small plant and see a watermelon or an eggplant come out of it," Coffin added. "They're under a cloud of science but they just don't realize it."
The Children's Garden began in 2000 when volunteers began transforming a plot of land between railroad tracks and Woodmere Avenue. When the library was built and landscaping was being planned, Susan Kuschell recalls how teachers, parents and students approached her asking, "Where can we dig?"
Over the years, the Grand Traverse Children's Garden has grown to include a pavilion, greenhouse, a mini amphitheater and pizza oven.
"It just keeps growing, it really does," said director Kuschell, who helped launch the garden 12 years ago.
"It's all community donations," she added of the nonprofit endeavor. "Everything is free for the children."
Working in the dirt can spark a passion even for young children, said Anna Blight, a horticulture teacher with the Traverse Bay Intermediate School District.
"I think this would start a lifelong love of gardening," she said. "I am amazed at what some of them have done here."
Tiffany Stamm, one of Blight's students, spent her summer as an intern helping in the Grand Traverse Children's Garden.
"They like their hands-on activities and to see things grow," said Stamm, a senior at Kingsley High School.
Although Stamm and other interns, coordinators and volunteers help out, the children are the ones who plan and decide and do the work.
"We're just here to help, they plant it how they want it, the adults don't do it," Stamm said.