QUINCY — Helen Mathews admits she doesn’t know much about gardening — except that she likes eating the fresh produce.
“I love tomatoes,” the 9-year-old Quincy girl said.
But she’s learning more about how to grow plants, and how to turn garden produce into quick and healthy snacks, thanks to the Junior Master Gardener program offered this month by University of Illinois Extension in Adams County.
Classes taught by Extension’s Betsy Bauer and Katie Parker touch on planting, transplanting and direct seeding along with soil types, garden maintenance and pollinators with hands-on activities to reinforce the key ideas.
“I’ll know more about plants and how to make them grow so that my garden at home will be better and bigger,” Helen said. “I love cooking, baking and stuff like that. This has been really fun.”
A lesson on plant parts — the root, stem, leaves, flower, fruit and seeds — led to making Plant Parts Salsa with tomatoes, peppers and lime (fruit), onion and garlic (stem) and cilantro (leaves) to serve with chips.
“It’s really good,” said 12-year-old Lydia Zanger, who took the class with her 10-year-old sister Heidi.
“We try to pair the snack of the day with what we’re talking about,” Bauer said.
Edible Soil, often known as Dirt Pudding, proved popular, and so did Flower Garden Graham Crackers and Butterfly Snacks.
“With celery and peanut butter, apples as wings, pretzels as antennas and chocolate chips as eyes, it’s a healthy snack,” Parker said.
“One kid said ‘I don’t even like celery, but this is so good,’” she said. “Hopefully they go home and tell their parents this is a snack they want in the future.”
In making the salsa, everybody took a turn adding an ingredient to the food processor, then had a chance to taste the finished product. But making snacks was only part of the program’s appeal.
“I like gardening. I have my own garden at my great-grandma’s,” said 11-year-old Kyle Thompson, who stripped cilantro leaves from the stem to add to the food processor.
“I wanted to learn different things about gardening and how to take care of my plants,” 14-year-old Amber Carmean said before squeezing lime juice into the salsa.
Parker and Bauer hope to see the Junior Master Gardener program continue.
“It’s a great program. Kids are enjoying it. It’s valuable to look at what we could potentially offer,” Parker said. “If we can spark interest in kids at a young age in growing things and being involved in Junior Master Gardeners, there’s a potential to interest them in more Extension activities and potentially becoming a Master Gardener.”
Mini M&Ms or chocolate chips
Break pretzels into pieces, and set aside.
Wash and dry celery, then cut into 3- to 4-inch sections. Core and thinly slice apples. Spread peanut butter in the center of the celery and add two apple slices, skin side in, for the butterfly “wings.” Add mini M&M or chocolate chip eyes, then add two pretzel pieces as antennae.
Place an Oreo cookie (bedrock) in the bottom of a small clear plastic cup. Add crumbled cookies (parent material) as the next layer. Use vanilla pudding (subsoil) as the next layer, topped by a layer of chocolate pudding (topsoil) and a gummy worm. Top with sprinkles (litter, or organic matter).
Flower Garden Graham Cracker
Carefully spread a thin layer of cream cheese over a graham cracker. Press cookie crumbs on the bottom of the cracker, then add a pretzel stick as a stem. Design a flower using fresh fruit.
Plant Parts Salsa
4 cups tomatoes
¼ cup onion
½ cup bell peppers
2 tablespoons garlic, minced
2 tablespoons lime juice
½ cup fresh cilantro
Combine all ingredients in a food processor. Blend to desired consistency. Serve with tortilla chips.