State’s Youngest Master Gardener An Old Pro

FLORAL CITY—John Andrew Korycki had a special gift in mind on his 11th birthday and let his grandmother know she could bypass the toy stores and sporting goods shops.

And when the big day arrived, John Andrew got his wish — a shiny, new rototiller.

“He doesn’t really ask for toys,” said his mother. “Gardening tools are more what he has in mind these days.”

And why not. John Andrew, now 13, is Florida’s youngest master gardener, an honor bestowed by the University of Florida’s Cooperative Extension Service on gardeners who pass a rigorous course and test of their green thumbs.

While most master gardeners are considerably older or even retirees, John Andrew represents a growing interest in gardening among youths, said horticulture Assistant Professor Kathleen Ruppert, who researches youth and gardening for UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

Most who get involved in the master gardener program, like John Andrew, are home schooled and so have the flexibility to take the classes at their local extension offices, Ruppert said.

John Andrew, who has had his certificate since the age of 11, said the master gardening training fit in perfectly with his science curriculum.

“I learned about turfgrass, trees and flowers, grafting methods. Just the science of plants and how they function,” John Andrew said.

For hands-on experience, his father helped him plow up a 30-by-50-foot plot on their land outside Floral City. There, John Andrew planted tomatoes, squash, beans, watermelon and peppers. He used a drip irrigation system, and plastic sheeting and pine straw for moisture retention.

When a fungus threatened his crops in August, he says, “I turned to the methods I learned in the master gardener program.”

Master gardeners also are required to fulfill a community service function, helping others with gardening problems. When John Andrew takes his turn on the telephone at the extension office or at a booth in the community, folks who need help are hesitant at first, said Klaus Geyer, who runs the master gardener program for Hernando County.

“It’s a kid’s voice on the phone naturally, so when an adult asks to speak to a master gardener and a child answers, there’s a little bit of hesitance,” Geyer said. “But he knows his stuff and they can quickly see that. He’s as good as the adults.”

John Andrew also has helped out with 4-H horticulture projects at local schools and there, of course, no one questions his knowledge.

More and more master gardeners are working in schools. Two-thirds of Florida counties report that their master gardeners participate in class work.

Children today are becoming increasingly interested in gardening, said Ruppert, who co-authored a book called “Plant Fun,” which included projects suitable for children.

“By nature, kids learn by activity and horticulture is very active. You don’t sit and watch a plant grow, but there are many activities to do,” Ruppert said. “There’s a boom now in kids’ gardening tools. And with very young children, plants help them study colors and shapes.”

That’s something the Koryckis have known for some time. John Andrew became interested in gardening at his mother’s side when he was a toddler, as she worked in the yard. He’s looking forward to sparking a similar interest for his little brother, 7-month-old John Mark, as he grows up, although with parents and a brother who are master gardeners, John Mark will have lots of talent to draw upon.

As for his future, John Andrew says he’s fairly certain he will make agriculture his life’s work.

“I’m considering cotton or hay, or perhaps beef cows,” John Andrew says. “I’m still looking and praying.”

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