HERSHEY, Pa. (WHTM) – Hershey Gardens offers visitors the opportunity to stroll through 23 acres of blooming flowers in the spring and summer, miles of pumpkins in the fall, and a Christmas tree showcase in the winter. However, Hershey Gardens is more than just a pretty place to visit as they are actively educating the next generation on the importance of gardening.
“We do see quite a few students [visit] from inner cities where they might not have access to the opportunity to even see how plants grow,” Hershey Gardens’ Education and Public Programs Manager Rebecca Lawrence said. “Here they can see that.”
Hershey Gardens established its Children’s Garden in 2003 where kids can learn about growing fruits and vegetables, the different ways of gardening, native plants, and the history of chocolate cultivation.
Families who visit are treated with a self-guided lesson on how to grow vegetables in their own homes, allowing both children and adults alike to be educated on home gardening.
The Hoop House in the Children’s Garden displays different gardening techniques that can be used by anyone, regardless of whether their home has a yard or not. Vegetable gardening options ranging from raised beds to hanging baskets are on display.
Hershey Gardens also demonstrates sustainable garden techniques in the children’s area. They have a worm bed that is displayed during the warmer months to teach visitors about composting and they have a rain barrel.
“These are things your average homeowner can learn about in that space and take home and adapt to their environment,” Lawrence said.
Although Hershey offers self-led opportunities for adults to learn gardening methods such as these, their main programming focus is on pre-k through 2nd graders. Their two main educational programs focus on the life cycles of plants and the life cycles of insects, which Lawrence says coincides with the curriculum those age groups are learning in Pennsylvania schools.
Lawrence says that through these field trip programs, Hershey Gardens sees about 6,000 schoolchildren every year.
Hershey Gardens also offers a school program called “Green Thumbs” that gives students a more hands-on gardening experience. Kids get to either plant a seed or harvest already-grown vegetables.
“It widens their view and it connects what they see in the supermarket or farmers market or even the food bank,” Lawrence said. “They have a better understanding of how it’s grown, where it comes from, and how they play a role in cultivating that. It’s one piece of that much larger puzzle”
Lawrence says some kids, and adults, never know that carrots come in a different color other than orange until they explore the gardens.
Hershey Gardens works to ensure that all children have access to these experiences and this education.
For schools where more than 75% of their student population receive free or reduced lunch from the National School Lunch Program, Hershey Gardens offers a scholarship program that waives the admission fee and provides the school with a stipend to help cover the costs of busing students.
Hershey Gardens also has a special program for homeschooled children. Homeschoolers can participate in the same programs as all other children, but the gardens hold special days for homeschooled kids. They have two main “home school days” a year where they host 125 to 150 children who get to explore experimental and observational stations focused on a main theme.
They also offer a similar experience for families at their Marvelous Monday programs.
“Even if they are coming and they’re playing on the boats or the chimes, they’re walking through that Hoop House space and they’re observing,” Lawrence said. “You never quite know how that impact will then reach them at home.”
The Hoop House and the learning gardens are not just supplying educational experiences to children, but they are helping to feed the community in the process.
“Everything that’s harvested from the Hoop House is donated to Cocoa Packs or a local food bank,” Lawrence said. “This year we have exceeded over 600 pounds of produce harvested from that space.”
The children get to play a part in helping grow and harvest the food that is donated and they are told how what they are doing at the garden is helping others.
“[The donations] are very much in part of all that work those students did in the spring, planting those seeds and transplanting, [and partly from] the teens that we have come in and work with us over the summer in our volunteer program,” Lawrence said.