8:22 a.m., Aug. 17, 2010----Two years ago, Nemours Mansion and Gardens completed a $39 million restoration. Outside improvements included extensive enhancements to the formal gardens and refurbishment of statues. The results are stunning, though there is, admittedly, one area of the gardens that sometimes sports a weed or two.
Nemours horticulturalist Ric Larkin is finicky about the rest of this 300-acre estate but he doesn't mind the occasional weed that gets overlooked in the new 4-H vegetable garden. That's because he knows what good things the garden is doing for the community.
The 4-H Garden at Nemours is designed to teach 4-H youth about the ins and outs of growing vegetables while supplying produce to the Food Bank of Delaware. In addition, some vegetables are set aside for a produce stand that 4-H has been operating at Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for several summers.
“We already had a relationship with 4-H and the University of Delaware because of the produce stand,” says Larkin. “So when we decided to seek more community involvement between Nemours and outside groups, we naturally thought of 4-H. It's been working very well. We've even had some hospital patients out in the garden with the 4-Hers.”
The garden kicked off last year with a fall crop and is now in its first full growing season. Nemours provides the land and access to water, as well as plenty of support from Larkin.
UD Cooperative Extension provides the tools, seeds and plants, supplemented by donations from local growers. Youth from 4-H -- assisted by Master Gardeners -- supply the labor necessary to maintain the 60-foot by 35-foot vegetable garden.
“I don't mind weeding or watering but it's the planting I like the most,” says Cameron Ernst, a 12-year-old Hockessin resident and member of the Future Discovery Team 4-H club. He and his 16-year-old brother, Matthew, work at the garden on a weekly basis from spring planting day, in mid-May, right through the final harvest, in late September.
Their mother, Maureen, says that the garden project ties in with science curriculum requirements for the boys, who are homeschooled.
“It's a great feeling doing community service and knowing we are helping other people out,” says Matthew Ernst. And recently, the boys got to enjoy a small taste of the fruits of their labor.
“Last week, we picked so many cucumbers that after we packed up the Food Bank donation we took one [remaining] cucumber home with us,” says Maureen Ernst. “But this one cucumber and a small amount of lettuce are the only times the boys have tasted what they've grown.”
“The 4-H Garden at Nemours has donated about 100 pounds of produce to the Food Bank thus far this season,” says Carrie Murphy, a UD Cooperative Extension horticulture agent who helps to coordinate the project with 4-H educators Ernie Lopez and Jordan Ashby.
During the many months of garden planning, the 4-Hers relied on Murphy for horticultural advice. However, given the other demands of her job, she can only be at the garden about once a week. So earlier this summer, Master Gardeners began volunteering, working side by side with 4-Hers.
“The Master Gardeners really know their stuff,” notes Matthew Ernst. “I've learned a lot from them.”
Matthew knows his stuff, too. Just ask the judges at the Delaware State Fair who gave his produce a blue ribbon.
Several 4-Hers entered produce from the garden into the State Fair vegetable contests. Matthew and Cameron both won blue ribbons for their potatoes, as well as for displays of multiple vegetables. Cameron also won a blue ribbon for his string beans.
“The relationship we are building with Ric Larkin and his staff at the Nemours Mansion and Gardens in a special one,” notes Lopez. “All of us in the 4-H and Master Gardener arms of Cooperative Extension feel fortunate to have their support, knowledge and patience on our side. Ric and his staff understand the needs that Delaware families have for healthy foods and we feel fortunate that they are allowing us to use a portion of the Nemours property to grow fresh produce and vegetables.”
“This garden provides yet another lens through which to view the incredible legacy that Alfred duPont left for children and their families,” adds Lopez. “I'd like to think that he'd be pleased to know that a plot of land on his estate was being used to feed needy families with healthy foods -- even if the plot was a little weedy on occasion.”
Article by Margo McDonough
Photos by Danielle Quigley