This urban gardening camp wants kids to know how to 'slow down the day'

Growing up, Amber Edmunds spent many summer days digging in the dirt of her grandparents’ garden. Her grandfather grew collard greens, tomatoes, peppers, string beans and annual and perennial flowers. Every Memorial Day, he visited the cemetery to clean family graves and plant flowers around them. Today, Edmunds cherishes those memories and packs her “tiny” apartment with house plants and has containers overflowing with flowers on the balcony.

“I enjoyed gardening a lot,” the 41-year-old doula in Pittsburgh told TODAY Parents. “I wanted the same thing for my children.”

Lenyxx Endmunds,7, enjoyed seeing how potatoes grew at Soil Sisters gardening camp. She also treated the other campers to some of her favorite musical songs.  (Courtesy Sarah Warda)

When Edmunds heard that a local nursery, Soil Sisters, was offering a gardening camp this summer, she enrolled her daughter Lenyxx, 7, in it.

“It is just a great idea,” she said. “I am really grateful.”

The Soil Sisters are Raynise and Taray Kelly. Thanks to a grant, they started the camp to give children in the Beltzhoover neighborhood of Pittsburgh outdoor activities as the COVID-19 pandemic lingers. Like Edmunds, the Kellys gardened with their grandparents growing up and wanted to introduce a new generation to the tradition.

“I am hoping it gives kids a sense of connection to things that aren’t charged up to batteries that don’t necessarily have to involve a huge group of people. You can garden with your family or by yourself,” Raynise told TODAY Parents.” “We’re just slowing down the day and just appreciating what nature has to offer.”

All four of Jennifer Lyles's children attend the Soil Sisters' camp. The first week, she struggled to convince them to come home with her.  (Courtesy Sarah Warda)

Over five Sundays from the middle of July through August, the Soil Sisters offer two camp sessions, one in the morning for younger children, age 6 to 9, and one in the afternoon for children age 10 to 13. Each week they learn about a different element of growing, such as about soil, worms, seedlings and herbs, for example. The sisters originally planned to have one camp but so many people were interested they split the 26 campers into two groups.

“It was way more than overwhelming. We were blown away,” Raynise said.

Taray and Raynise Kelly grew up gardening with their grandparents and they turned their love of gardening into a nursery and a day camp for neighborhood children.  (Courtesy Sarah Warda)

Jennifer Lyles’ four children, Bryon, 13, Brooke, 12, Brayden, 10 and Brennan, 8 are in the camp.

“My daughter is into gardening and growing things and I thought it would be something good for the boys to learn,” the 34-year-old, who works as an appointment scheduler at a doctor's office, told TODAY Parents. “They had their first meeting and they didn’t want to leave when I picked them up … they liked being out there. They’re adventurous”

The Kelly sisters recently started their nursery in their basement as they navigate zoning requirements to build a nursery and greenhouse. Raynise works as a garden educator at a Grow Pittsburgh and wanted to show their community that gardening is accessible to everyone. After her now 11-year-old daughter was born, her interest in gardening reignited as she realized how detached she was from the food she ate. She began pursuing gardening professionally and realized her passion could be her career.

"I feel like I came to it so late. Had I had a camp that I went to on weekends about gardening I would have looked for jobs (sooner)," she said. "I felt like (my nursery) needed to represent the residents of that community."

Campers at the Soil Sisters' summer camp learn about all parts of gardening, such as soil and earth worms.  (Courtesy Sarah Warda)

The camp introduces children to a possible career they might not have realized existed, but more importantly it teaches them skills that they can cultivate on their own and with their families.

“Children can't do everything, but there's a lot of it that they can do on their own,” Raynise said. “But their parents find themselves getting swept up in growing things and now you've gone from growing in a small pot to having many pots and now mom and dad are digging up in the front yard.”

Lenyxx Edmunds said she loved seeing a potato straight from the ground. It was the first time she saw how potatoes grew. But her mom loves that she’s learning how to garden from women who look like her.

The Soil Sisters plan to teach their campers how to garden where they live, in the city. That means they might need to learn how to fortify the soil to make it hospitable to plans.  (Courtesy Sarah Warda)

“Sometimes you don’t know what is possible," she said. “Visibility is one of the most important things. It is not to say that children can’t learn from someone who doesn’t look like them. It is so nice, though, for them to see women who look like them."