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'I like gardening': Pasco youngsters become mini farmers and chefs at summer camp

DADE CITY - Summer break is here, with its lazy days. But not so much for youngsters like Ethan Bahmann.

While some were sleeping in the week after school let out, he was up and at 'em, pulling vegetables and thinking about a fantastical remedy for an end-of-times scenario that entailed carrots, a lemon and the hot, ghost peppers his grandfather is famous for cultivating.

"I like gardening," Ethan, 9, said with a wide grin as he held up a freshly-picked fistful of carrots and green beans. "It's peaceful."

It's also a resourceful endeavor in a state that boasts multiple planting seasons. Kids who live here should know more about that.

Ethan was one of 14 youngsters to learn more at the Farm-to-Table summer camp held June 3-8 at the Pasco Extension One Stop Shop and garden on 14th Street in Dade City.

The camp, presented over five half-days by the University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agriculture Sciences and the Pasco County Extension, is one of several programs for youth and adults offered throughout the year.

"We essentially teach them where their food comes from, how to grow their own food, as well as the health and nutritional aspects of healthy eating," said camp director, Eden Santiago-Gomez.

Throughout the week, students kept busy with fun and educational activities held indoors and out.

They ventured to the garden to harvest vegetables - carrots and beans to take home, herbs to dry for tea and giant cucuzza squash that would be made into a healthy snack.

In the classroom, they learned about the parts of plants, cold- and warm-season varieties, and mapped out their own square-foot garden. They did garden word searches and filled out worksheets about vegetable classifications, such as nightshades (eggplant, potato, tomato), legumes (beans,peas) and cucurbits (melons,squash).

And they ate - making healthy snacks and s'mores. They cooked the chocolate, marshmallow, graham cracker concoction on the pavement in solar ovens they made using re-purposed pizza boxes, foil and plastic wrap.

They also dabbled in science and the problem of plastic pollution, testing out a formula to create edible water bottles using sodium alginate (which comes from brown seaweed), a salt called calcium lactate (found in baking soda) and bowl of water.

"We have so much fun, but they're learning a lot, " said Santiago-Gomez, who developed the curriculum with the help of Shari Bresin, an agent with the extension's Family and Consumer Science program, and Tabitha Villa, a program assistant with the Family Nutrition program.

Guest speakers also shared their knowledge.

Among them was Mona Neville, a cooperative assistant forester with the Florida Forest Service. She gave a presentation on the foods and products that come from trees and whipped up a healthy batch of "Tree Treats" made out of dried apricots, figs, prunes, cinnamon and almonds.

Frank Galdo, program director of the Florida Friendly Landscaping program, gave sometimes gross presentation on bad and good bugs, pointing out some examples during a garden scavenger hunt.

Lisa Martin, project coordinator for Education and Recycling, offered a primer on items that can be recycled in Pasco County. She taught students how to re-purpose a plastic jug into a hanging bird feeder.

"You are not disturbing natural resources when you use recycled products," she said. "If you want parks and trees and want animals to have their habitats, then you want to recycle."

The kids, it seemed, were already on it.

Santiago-Gomez, said she was impressed with what the youngsters already knew. Some had home gardens or worked in gardens at their schools. Most were familiar with the process of photosynthesis and the importance of pollinators. Many recycled at home and at school.

"They already came in with so much knowledge," she said, "... which was amazing, because we were able to take the topics a little bit further and expand."

The camp got a thumbs up from Ethan, who is stuck on planting those ghost peppers his grandfather grows in his own garden.

"Learning about bugs and stuff and like getting down in the dirt ...," he said. "I really like being here and it's awesome that I actually signed up for this. So, I would give this place a five star review."

Contact Michele Miller at mmiller@tampabay.com or (727) 869-6251. Follow @MicheleMiller52.

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