Blessing the Worms

New Roots Youth Garden grows character in Cape Charles

New Roots Youth Garden grows character in Cape Charles

Each spring, pint-sized gardeners gather in a plot on Virginia’s Eastern Shore to kick off the growing season with a special ceremony.

The Blessing of the Worms is New Roots Youth Garden’s first community-wide event of the year, offering visitors a chance to learn about the not-for-profit children’s garden club and purchase plants for their own yards.

A rotating cast of clergy from the small town of Cape Charles and surrounding area churches pray for a prosperous year before children toting the “Worm Wagon” spread the anointed annelids in raised beds.

“Gardening reduces anxiety, it can help with symptoms of ADHD and it provides satisfaction and teaches kids about the results of work,” said Brook Thomas, Garden Club president.

“They try things that they would never try because they’ve grown it,” said Tammy Holloway, one of the Youth Garden’s founding members.

The concept behind a children’s community garden emerged during thesis work by Laurie Klingel, owner of Appleseed Nurseries in nearby Eastville.

A group of Cape Charles residents rallied behind the concept, forming a nonprofit to launch what is now a thriving plot on Fig Street, the town’s main thoroughfare. 

We “went door to door and introduced ourselves to grandparents and parents and said, ‘We’re going to have this kids’ garden on Thursday. We’d love for you to come with your children,’” said Holloway. “And it worked—they showed up.”

Seven members kicked off the first garden club sessions in 2010, after the town of Cape Charles allowed the group to use the Fig Street plot free of charge. The town provided electricity, mowing, and water to help the new operation get off the ground.

A small team of individuals and organizations soon donated supplies and labor to install a fence separating the garden from the busy street, as well as picnic tables and a shed.

“That set the tone for it just being a giving place,” Holloway said.

Today, more than 30 local groups and individuals donate to the garden club and around 30 volunteers help keep the operation running, Thomas said. Volunteers also serve as role models for the young gardeners, she added.

“In the past nine or eight years, we have taken it and expanded the garden and really figured out what works and what didn’t work,” said Thomas. “We’ve kind of found our groove.”

Between 15 and 30 young gardeners participate in the weekly sessions on Thursday nights from 5-6:30 p.m. during the spring, summer, and fall. The club welcomes anyone to join the activities, whether it is for one week or an entire season.

Children ages five to 13 make up the garden club core, though younger children can participate in the “Littles Garden,” and older members can volunteer to help keep the operation running, Thomas said. 

The garden’s unofficial motto, “Get creative, get dirty, get fit,” describes the trio of activities children engage in every week.

“There’s Get Creative, which is educational, experiential learning where they can apply the things that they’re learning. And then Get Dirty [where they] get their hands in the garden. And then Get Fit—activities that keep them moving,” Thomas said.

Children cycle through each activity by age, helping keep even the most active gardeners engaged, Holloway said. Club organizers also bring guests from groups such as 4-H, Kiptopeke State Park, and the Beekeepers Guild of the Eastern Shore to offer hands-on learning throughout the year.

Each season brings a unique set of activities to the garden, with summer marked by the opening of the farm stand. After harvesting, which most participants agree is their favorite activity, the young gardeners weigh and measure produce, greet customers, and count change at the stand. 

“We rotate a couple kids through the farm stand so they can learn to look people in the eye when they talk to them,” Thomas said. 

“These are social skills that children learn … that really made a difference,” Holloway said.

Proceeds from the stand help support the garden, which runs thanks to a mix of grants and community donations. 

In addition to its Blessing of the Worms, the garden hosts several fundraisers throughout the year, including the Fourth of July Guppie Challenge fishing tournament, which draws around 100 children to the Cape Charles pier each year.

There will be a fall fundraiser this year, although plans are still in the works, Thomas said.

At the end of each garden club session, participants bring home a brown bag of produce. The only rule, she said, is “they have to try it, and report back next week.”

“It’s cool for them to see. From when they plant things, they can watch them grow and then they can harvest them,” Thomas said.

This gets some youngsters excited about eating new foods—including hot peppers and Brussels sprouts straight from the stalk.

“It’s just a lot of fun,” said 11-year-old Daniela Siegrist, who has been coming to the garden club since
its inception.

In addition to attending events like the Blessing of the Worms, those interested in supporting New Roots Youth Garden can visit the farm stand Thursday evenings during garden club sessions, 5-6:30 p.m. most weeks during the spring, summer, and fall.