Sunday, April 27, 2008

Man finds more than roots in childhood: Memory inspires him to teach young gardeners

By TOMIE LUNSFORD
Telegram Staff Writer

Grandpa was the gardener.
He knew what to plant where and when, and he knew how the big shovel worked.
The little boy's only job was to follow his grandpa and drop a seed in each hole new hole.
'What a feeling it gave me when the plants started growing,' said Neil Cochran of Georgetown, the little boy all grown up. 'I was part of it. I was there to plant it, and I was there to pick it, whatever it was my grandpa had planted.'
But, as they do for most people, the rigors of earning a living and having a family came to take precedence over things enjoyed in childhood.
'I didn't garden while I was in the Marines,' Cochran said. For several years after graduation, he worked as a series officer for the Marine Recruit Depot at Parris Island in South Carolina.
'And when you're a parent, you're too busy running around after the kids to bother with a garden.'
So it wasn't until Cochran was in his 40s that his passion for gardening was rekindled. The trigger that did it was a child's excitement. 'I working with some kids at a Junior Master Gardener program,' Cochran said, explaining that a friend had asked him to substitute for the regular teacher. 'The project was to make hats out of newspaper. It was a lesson of plant growth.'
He said students were to make the following anagram: Place, Light, Air, Nutrition, Thirsty and Soil.
'Then the kids were supposed to use their imagination and illustrate what they thought the anagram meant, and then they were supposed to explain what they made.'
A response from a young girl got Cochran's attention.
'She understood the lesson, of course, but that's not what got me,' he said. 'She was grinning from ear to ear, and she kept on saying how she wanted to show that hat to her grandfather. She wanted to tell him what she had learned.'
That little girl's enthusiasm reminded Cochran of the magic his grandfather had taught him.
He became a certified educator in the Master Gardener program. Last weekend he was named State Educator of the Year by the Texas Junior Master Gardener Association.
Though Cochran works with the Williamson County Master Gardeners these days, his name is still known in Bell County from the years he participated in the local group. Its been within the last decade that Cochran relocated.
'Neil is the a past president of the Bell County Master Gardeners Association,' said Dirk Aaron, extension agent of agriculture and natural resources. 'He is truly a dedicated volunteer who believes in the mission of the Extension Service.'
Aaron also said Cochran was instrumental in starting the new model of the Junior Master Gardener program.
'(Cochran) helped put the program into the public schools of Bell county,' Aaron said. 'We currently have nine elementary and middle schools who have more than 1,900 kids completing JMG in 2007-08 school year.'
Teaching has become as important as gardening to Cochran. He wants children to know the value of homegrown vegetables.
'Today's grammar school children are three generations off the farm,' Cochran said. 'They don't know what fresh veggies taste like. They don't know what it's like to work in the dirt and actually care for the food you grow.'
He thinks that trend is a shame.
'Everyone who lives in suburban atmosphere are attached to some screen, the cell phone, TV or computer,' Cochran said. 'But it's possible to bring gardening back into family life. The Junior Master Gardener program is one of them. The kids will get learn and get excited, and then that will encourage the parents to get involved.'
It's not just excitement that gardening offers, though. Cochran stressed that there's practical advantages to it.
'What you grow is 100 percent healthy,' he said. 'It tastes better, and you're not worrying about what chemicals are on it. It also teaches responsibility and offers a chance for families to bond.'

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