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DANIEL CLIFTON • PICAYUNE EDITOR

MARBLE FALLS — It’s not something you typically find in a garden, but when one of the local homeschool children asked about planting it, Jennifer Jones shrugged and asked, “Why not?”

“This is about learning as much as growing,” she explained while walking through the Not So Secret Garden on a vacant lot next to her home on Pecan Drive. “So no matter what one of the kids wants to plant, we try it, even if it’s not the right season or we don’t know if it will grow. We plant it and learn.”

And obviously from the cornucopia of vegetables plants, flowers and herbs erupting from the ground, the growing is going well.

“Yeah, some of the plants really take off,” Jones said. The Not So Secret Garden is a living laboratory of the Texas Hill Country Homeschoolers, a local group of homeschoolers who support each other and regularly meet up for lessons, events and programs. This is the third year for the garden with each incarnation being a bit different than the previous as the youth try out new plants or offer different suggestions.

Sure it includes staples such as tomatoes and beans, but there is also a row of sugar cane and an experimental block of six varieties of sweet potatoes. The sweet potato exercise (they do grow in this area) came about at the suggestion of Jessica Robertson from Backbone Valley Nursery. Jones said Robertson was looking to add sweet potatoes to the nursery’s plant selection but wanted to determine the best varieties. So she asked the homeschoolers and the Not So Secret Garden to plant several varieties.

Jennifer Jones (left) and her daughter, Marney, inspect some mammoth sunflowers at the Texas Hill Country Homeschoolers' Not So Secret Garden.
Jennifer Jones (left) and her daughter, Marney, inspect some mammoth sunflowers at the Texas Hill Country Homeschoolers’ Not So Secret Garden.

“We report back to her on how they are growing,” Jones said. “It’s part of the experimenting and research.”

This year, thanks to a grant through the Transforming Texas Committee, which promotes healthy eating, the Hill Country Homeschoolers added a drip-irrigation system to the garden. The students did all the work, including designing and installing the system. It pays off through water conservation, labor savings and more efficient watering.

Along with the homeschool garden, the committee awarded a grant to Camp Peniel, located east of Marble Falls on RR 1431, funding for its garden, called Ziggy’s Garden.

One aspect of the grant is to promote healthy eating, which is something Jones and other parents have noticed the youth involved in the Not So Secret Garden are doing more of.

“They’re more likely to eat vegetables they pick and helped grow,” Jones said. And the homeschooler group also encourages kids to eat healthier through various programs at the garden. Recently, the homeschool group held a salsa competition.

“So the kids have to gather all the ingredients here at the garden and make the salsa here,” Jones said. “Then we judged it. The kids really enjoyed it because they got to make something themselves from things right here in the garden.”

One entry was even a blackberry salsa.

Each participating family gets a portion in the garden where they plant and tend the produce. The kids decide which plants to grow. This, Jones said, is where a lot of the research comes in. The families study the different plants and how best to grow them.

Since the group follows organic principles at the garden, the students further delve into best practices for particular vegetables, herbs or other plants. And when a weed or unknown plant pops up, the kids research it to determine what it is, if it’s beneficial or how to control it. The same is true with insects.

“So they do a lot of research,” Jones explained. “We even plant plants that draw beneficial insects. We’ve worked hard to include lots of things for monarch butterflies.”

The efforts have paid off as the garden has become a beacon for the flying creatures on their cross-country journey from Canada to their winter grounds in central Mexico.

In the garden, Jones goes through some of the varieties of plants, including some malibar spinach they learned about from the Highland Lakes Master Gardeners during one of the times the homeschoolers volunteered at The Helping Center of Marble Falls’ garden. Jones pointed out the Master Gardeners have been extremely helpful in sharing their knowledge with the homeschool students.

While it’s a living classroom on many levels, the garden also provides a great deal of produce. Jones said for several homeschool families, the produce definitely helps since they might be a one-income family.

“In the past, we’ve also given some to The Helping Center,” she added.

In the end, the main goal is giving the students a place to learn and study about plants, biology and related disciplines. Sometimes, the best lessons are a big what if, such as the few rows of ground-hugging green plants with a few yellow blooms located beneath the towering sunflowers. Jones shook her head and smiled.

“We didn’t even know they’d grow here,” she said. “But they are.”

“They” are peanuts. When one of the students suggested it — though nobody knew much about them — they decided to try them. Jones said all they did was buy some raw Spanish peanuts from Whole Foods and plant them.

“So who knows, we may have peanuts this year,” Jones said.

And who knows what the next garden will grow? Well, the students do.

Transforming Texas Committee seeking grant applicants

MARBLE FALLS — Groups or organizations interested in a grant for a garden project should submit an application through the Community Gardens Initiative. The grant is open to Burnet County organizations to enhance existing community gardens or create new ones.

The vision for the Community Gardens Initiative is to create a space that will promote and support healthy lifestyles for people in the community as well as benefit those with limited food access.

Up to five organizations will be awarded a grant of up to $500. Recipients will be required to attend some training. There also must be an organization or volunteer group willing and able to maintain the garden.

Examples of eligible organizations include, but are not limited to, churches and places of worship, schools, nursing homes, independent living centers and worksites.

The initiative is organized through the Texas Department of State Health Services, Long Live Texans-Burnet County and the Highland Lakes Health Partnership.

The deadline for grant applications is July 25. Go to highlandlakeshealthpartnership.org for more information or an application. Email Kristin Eastman at keastman@wcchd.org with other questions.

daniel@thepicayune.com