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Gardening and Children a Winning Combination

It may seem like an odd time to think about gardening, as the temperature drops and the leaves disappear from the trees. Not for Vanoka Morris-Smith of Berlin, Md. She lives and breathes gardening. It's been her greatest love since she was a young girl.

Just about the only thing she enjoys more than an afternoon elbow-deep in soil is sharing her passion with children. One could say that transforming computer, cell phone and television-addicted youngsters into "little growers" is what makes Morris-Smith bloom.

The seed to inspire youngsters was planted in her mind eight years ago after glimpsing a young African-American girl on the cover of an old gardening magazine. That little girl with a fistful of basil and mismatched earrings showed such joy that Morris-Smith knew she had to reach out to children.

Her thinking isn't novel -- children (and adults) spend too much time indoors and they are losing touch with nature. Often called Nature Deficit Disorder, the phenomenon is detrimental to us all. No one is looking at the leaves, she says. People can't tell the difference between an oak leaf and a ginkgo leaf.

She would do her part to change that.

Within a short time she was volunteering at a school in Philadelphia where she often visits a close relative. Morris-Smith's gardening passion and desire to influence young minds proved to be a winning combination.

She and her little growers have won several gardening awards over the years. In 2007 transformed a run-down lot of leveled houses into an environmental learning center for a Philadelphia elementary school. It was one of three first-place winners for best school and children's garden and the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society's 33rd Annual City Gardens contest. That same year she was named an exceptional mentor by the same group. In 2007 she took herself back to school and master gardener so she would "know the answers when the children asked the questions."

A postage orchard with Hale peaches in her Berlin yard is possibly her next project and she hopes to become involved with local children. She's often seen in town wearing her "horticulture hat," the one adorned with a big sunflower. The hat is a reminder of the giant sunflowers -- as big as car tires -- grown by some of her protégés.

Organic gardening using heirloom seeds and plants is her specialty. To qualify as heirloom, a plant must come from a seed family that has been grown in a garden for at least 50 years. Often, the seeds have been handed down from generation to generation over hundreds of years. It is this element that is perhaps most important to her.

Sure, organic gardening is good for the environment. The exercise has helped her lose weight and better manage rheumatoid arthritis. But for Morris-Smith, gardening is a link to the past, present and future all at once. This, she says, makes it good for the soul too.

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