Connecting kids to gardening
For most gardeners, a big part of gardening is sharing with others. For Coast of Maine Organic Products, it’s about sharing the love of gardening with the next generation. The company created its Growing Good program to help schools and other organizations instill the gardening bug in younger generations.
Garden centers are often approached by schools and local organizations to donate product; Cameron Bonsey, vice president of marketing at Coast of Maine, saw how they could help as a company.
“Especially when we were smaller, we would tell garden centers that the garden coordinator at a local school was going to stop by and pick up Coast of Maine soil at their store, and that we’d credit their account,” Bonsey says. “The idea was that we would support the schools and we would drive traffic to the local garden centers — and take some of the burden off people expecting them to donate to certain causes. That way, we could all work on a partnership and educate kids and get new gardeners.”
The program started about 10 years ago and was given the name Growing Good around 2018.
How It Works
Today, schools or other organizations fill out a form on the Coast of Maine website to apply to participate in the program.
“We ask them where they shop, and there are times when they come back and say Home Depot or Lowe’s or some other big box store, and it’s satisfying to be able to write back and say, ‘We work with independent retailers and our goal is to drive traffic to them, so the program is not available through those stores. But I have a local garden center right down the road and this is where you should go.’ And then hopefully we were able to take somebody who was a Home Depot or a Lowe’s shopper and push them inside that garden center door.”
Bonsey says about 200 schools participated in 2022, and he is planning for 300 this year. While the program began locally in the New England area, it’s since taken off around the country.
“We’ve started promoting the program on our social media, so this year’s taken off — it’s very satisfying. Ten bags of living soil can really help with soil fertility while saving the school money. We have never turned a program down and have donated more depending on the project.
“We talk about schools, and that’s what our focus is, but I can tell you that I get people to contact us and I say, ‘Listen, this program was designed for schools, but go apply. We’ll get you set up.’”
Sue Kelley of Reynolds Farms Nurseries in Norwalk, Connecticut, says the social media promotions have helped her store. She says they encourage participants to tag both the store and Coast of Maine in any mentions of the project.
“This program has helped us to develop stronger relationships with our customers,” she says.
Growing Future Gardeners
To get kids involved in gardening, you have to get your (and their) hands dirty.
“When they see something grow in a garden, it can really imprint on them at a young age and they become lifetime gardeners. That’s what you hope.”
Most of the gardens helped are growing vegetables, and the harvests stay with the schools — with myriad benefits: healthier choices, offset food costs for the school, and kids more willing to eat these vegetables because they grew them.
Bonsey suggests garden centers connect with local schools in their area to let them know you want to help. He says creating a deeper sense of community through giving will also enhance store traffic.
He says getting a mention in school newsletters is a good way to create awareness. “School newsletters are newsletters that actually get read. So if you get a little line in there that says, ‘Skillins Greenhouses donated to our local high school and was a huge part of our school garden program,’ all the parents are actually reading it. That makes a difference — and it’s good advertising. It’s good-will advertising. I think that’s a good way to do things.
“And then the little kids are going to potentially say, ‘Let’s go to Skillins Greenhouses.’ Most of our garden centers do a good job on that. And then some of the garden centers will call me and say they had the school contact them — ‘Can you help out?’ It’s always yes.”
Garden Center Response
Kelley says they’ve helped about a half dozen gardens through the program, mostly local schools and community gardens.
“The participants are always so grateful for our help; we love when they come back and share their success stories with us,” she says.
“I believe the benefits to the nursery are immeasurable. It shows our customers that we are here to help support the community. Of course, the publicity is an added benefit. We encourage the participants to tag us, along with Coast of Maine in any of their social media posts regarding their project. This program has helped us to develop stronger relationships with our customers.”
She says they’ve seen an uptick in interest in gardening in recent years, including kids. “There has been an influx of homeowners to our area since the pandemic. Many of these new homeowners have never known the joy of gardening. We are so happy to introduce them to what we hope will be a lifelong hobby.”
Score Seed and Garden Supply in Wilmington, Delaware, participates in the Growing Good program and has also donated sod to little leagues and done some small sponsorships of local fundraisers.
“The vast majority of the programs we are donating to teach elementary school students about gardening,” says Eric Carr, general manager. “Through these programs we are definitely seeing an increased interest in younger children.”
In addition to his role at Score Seed, Carr is president of Concord Rowing Club, a non-stock, nonprofit Delaware corporation that provides opportunities for Concord High School students to participate in the sport of rowing.
“In my nonprofit experience, I have learned how impactful donations from local small businesses are. Score Seed is one standalone store with owners who just recently purchased the store, so we don’t have the ability to help local organizations as much as we’d like to. Being a part of the Growing Good program has really helped us take that step.”
He says a lot of schools have tight budgets, and gardening is not something that most schools include in these budgets. He encourages other garden centers to consider donating to their local schools.
Kelley agrees. “I would definitely recommend getting involved with the local schools and community gardens. Coast of Maine has found a way to help support our local community in a seamless manner, with no expense to the IGC. These are our future gardeners; let’s encourage them!”