Gaccelle Vazquez, 10, had a happy skip to her step as she made her way through a dozen or so raised beds, her arms filled with freshly picked vegetables.
"Well I got myself some yummy, good onions and some yummy collard greens," she said in a sing-song voice, to no one in particular. "Now all's I need is a bag."
Gaccelle's modest harvest, likely destined for the family dinner table, was the payoff for the hours spent toiling in the garden at Lacoochee Elementary School.
"It's fun — you grow things, you pick 'em and you get to take stuff home," said Deshawn Singleton, 10, as he watered some healthy looking collards while a few beds down, Kacy Smith, 9, was planting rows of sunflower seeds and Latrell Avis, 11, was pulling ripe carrots.
Learning how to till soil and plant seeds, pull weeds and pick off insects that might chomp on delicate leaves is just part of how members of Lacoochee's Junior Garden Club spend their Wednesday afternoons after school.
The "Time to Sow Garden Project," sponsored by members of the Dade City Garden Club who join in the work each week, comes with a bevy of life lessons and introductions.
"Have you ever seen a gourd?" Molly Barnes asked youngsters before sending them outdoors to enjoy a healthy snack of grapes, strawberries, apples and quartered oranges the women brought. "We're going to plant some of those today."
Right now the garden is flush with a variety of flowers and vegetables — kale, collards and pansies, peas and onions, tomatoes that have yet to fruit and broccoli that has already bolted and gone to seed.
"It's everything you would ever want in a garden," said Barnes, who first started the project with other members of the club's Poinsettia Circle using kiddie pools filled with rich earth. Raised beds were purchased to replace the pools after members were awarded a $2,000 grant from Whole Kid's Foundation. That added to the seasonal harvests and earned the Dade City Garden Club an award and national recognition at the 2013 Florida Federation of Garden Clubs convention.
While students spend most of their time outdoors, they get culinary lessons as well.
"They've learned how to cook greens in all sorts of ways because we have a lot of them," said Barnes, noting that there's a thought of putting a recipe book together in the future.
Educating students about healthy food choices and teaching youngsters how to prepare vegetables in new ways are important aspects of the project, said Patty Barthle. Before her retirement, she worked as a school nurse at Lacoochee.
"Nutrition has always been important to me," Barthle said, recalling a recent cooking activity making frittatas. "One of the kids said, 'I'm going to go home and cook a frittata.' So we picked some collards and onions and broccoli and he went home and cooked a frittata. He said it was wonderful."
Come this summer, a handful of Lacoochee Junior Garden Club members will get a chance to learn more about gardening while enjoying the outdoors at a youth camp sponsored by the Florida Federation of Garden Clubs at Wekiwa Springs State Park, just north of Orlando. The Dade City Garden Club is paying the way.
"If we had 10 students that wanted to go, we'd find a way to send them," Barnes said. "Once they spend time in the wilderness collecting flowers and doing all sorts of good things they're forever changed."
In the meantime, club members will continue to work the garden.
"I think it's a great project," said fifth-grade teacher Meghan McComeskey, who stopped for a visit and ended up leaving with a bounty of carrots. "It's something that they all love to do. They're so excited to come to school each Wednesday because they know they have garden club. It gets them intrigued with learning."
"It's wonderful in several ways," said assistant principal Sherri Dunham. "First off, it's something the kids look forward to so they want to come to school. The women serve in mentorship roles and our students are exposed to foods they have not had before."
There is a strong educational component, she said, noting that students use math skills in measuring plants and also in the course of following recipes during cooking lessons.
Best of all is the outpouring into the local community. Vegetables are often donated to others in the neighborhood and at the local Boys and Girls Club.
"It teaches our students to share with others," Dunham said. "It teaches them to give back to their community."
Michele Miller can be reached at [email protected]