Flower power: A holiday houseplant provides 2,700 life lessons for young green thumbs

November 24, 2012 7:52:08 PM

Jan Swoope - [email protected]


At 5:30 a.m. on cold, dark November mornings, most teenagers are still snug in their beds, with visions of school tests or holidays ahead. But at the greenhouses of Palmer Home for Children in Columbus, something is stirring, and it's not the Christmas mice. 


There, 17-year-old Cody Dunn, Kimarri Whitfield, 13, Alex Franco-Johnson, 14, and his 16-year-old brother, David, daily visit eight greenhouses, methodically sliding back huge tarps of black Visqueen to reveal ruby red poinsettia plants -- 2,700 in all.  


Later in the day, after school, Kaitlin Copes, 16, and Crissy Marple, 13, will be among the teens in charge of pulling tarps back over the plants, shading them from even the light of a late autumn moon. 


The months-long process of growing poinsettias to sell is an annual Palmer Home tradition and provides a "job market" for the eight to 10 teens who assist Mary Tuggle. Miz Mary, as the kids call her, oversees the horticulture program, which gives all children on the campus an opportunity to plant and harvest fresh vegetables and fruits to eat, and spring flowers to sell.  




Learning and earning 


As with other small jobs on campus, youth receive a wage for working on the poinsettia project. A portion of their earnings is set aside for church tithing. Another portion goes into a savings account they receive upon graduation from high school, explained Palmer Home Program Coordinator Helen Anderson, who organizes poinsettia sales and delivery. The rest is theirs to use as they wish. 


More important than money earned are the life skills acquired. Just like the plants, young gardeners are pruned and nurtured through horticulture therapy, gaining social, educational and emotional growth, along with responsibility. 


"It's called character," young Cody said, standing outside the greenhouses with his friends on a bright fall afternoon. The Immanuel Christian School junior wants to be an aeronautical engineer someday. 


"They have to do the job, whether it's raining, snowing or sunshine; they have to be diligent and dependable, just like they'll have to be in a real job later," stated Tuggle, praising the leadership she's seen some of the teens show since the poinsettia program began in mid-August with a potting party. 




Small beginnings 


Crissy, an eighth-grader at Columbus Middle School, recalled mixing soil in more than 2,000 6 1/2-inch pots during the heat of summer. A small cutting was planted in each pot soon after. Tuggle's team then carefully followed a strict regimen. Poinsettias are very photosensitive. After lighting the growing plants for four weeks, the crew then shaded for eight weeks, controlling light exposure to create fullness and produce color in the bracts, or leaves. 


"They can't even see moonlight or they won't turn red!" said Crissy, revealing some of the gardening knowledge she'll carry with her for a lifetime. 


Palmer Home's plants have now reached full color, but still require light and temperature control. 


"They're just like little babies; you have to be with them every day," Tuggle smiled. 


For more than three months, the young growers have had the satisfaction of watching poinsettias morph from small 2- to 4-inch cuttings to glorious holiday decorations. 


"It's been cool, too, to see them go from flat green to red ... I remember when they were only this big," said Crissy, holding up two fingers a few inches apart.  




Shipping out 


Poinsettias will begin shipping Monday, delivered to customers who order at least five plants, at $17 each. They will be taken to destinations as far north as Memphis, Tenn., and as far south as Hattiesburg, explained Anderson.  


"I hope we'll be sold out by Dec. 1," she stated. 


The plants are also available at the Palmer Home greenhouses at 912 11th Ave. S., Monday through Friday, 9 a.m.-4 p.m. For more information, contact Anderson at 662-328-5704. 


Proceeds will support the Palmer Home residential ministry, which provides a stable, nurturing home life for children in its care. 




Well done 


The poinsettia project has produced another successful "crop," and the kids anticipate what the money they've earned might help purchase -- Christmas gifts, iTunes downloads and dinners at a Mexican restaurant. Looking ahead, they predict their accruing savings accounts will eventually go toward getting a car, an asset they know they'll need to pursue their goals, like Kimarri's dream of owning an auto mechanic shop, or Kaitlin's desire to visit every state. 


Chad Lewis is house dad to some of the teens on this year's poinsettia crew. 


"I really think it helps with understanding what a real job is. They hold each other accountable," he shared. "They not only learn skills, but get to work and receive a reward." 


To the patient observer, the "blossoming" seems evident in much more than just poinsettia plants.

Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.