Visit the Rahway, New Jersey, YMCA in August, and The Great Zucchini Race is just about anything anyone can talk about. A soapbox derby, but with vegetables, this family-fun event sees youngsters of all ages building “cars” out of zucchini, carrots, and other vegetables to race down Mr. Bob “The Gardener’s” 14-foot long, 3-lane wooden track. There are so many participants, they have to run heats to determine the victor. “They soup up the zucchinis,” Bob says. “Once they’re rolling, the kids will decorate them with feathers and such. Then it’s time to race.”
The race is just one piece of an entire summer for kids at the Rahway YMCA Summer Camp Square Foot Gardening Program. They also host a “Taste of the Garden,” bringing in a local chef, who stands under a tent in the garden and prepares nutritious new foods for the kids to try, using the fruits and vegetables they grew. “The kids are a little skeptical at first. A little ‘we gotta check this out.’ One will be bold and try it and then the others will follow. It is wonderful to see their faces light up and to hear them say, ‘That’s really good!’” Bob says, “I let them taste impatiens flowers. I have a video of one little girl who says, ‘That tastes like vanilla!’”
Those are the moments he lives for, as a Certified Instructor. “Even on the hot days, the kids, from age 5 to 15, are anxious to get outside in the garden.” He breaks up the hour lesson in 20-minute segments to give them a break from the sun. At the end of the summer, the kids participate in “Seed to Sale,” where they harvest their veggies, load up their wagons, and take them to sell at the big farmers’ market at the train station. “It gives them the full circle of understanding. They planted it, tended it, watered it, loved it, harvested it, and then they get to make some money from it,” Bob says.
In 2008, Bob moved back to his hometown after 25 years in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. “I was at a nursery or farm, touring it during late winter and saw the book, All New Square Foot Gardening. I remembered that my brother did that with strings! Originally, I thought, that is not for me, but then I found the new, simplified version. It became my Bible for teaching gardening.”
He attended a certification workshop in Utah with Mel in 2008. “I had just, that summer, started a Square Foot Gardening Program at the YMCA,” Bob says. “We made a video and I sent it back to Mel after the program concluded.” Bob went back to Utah the next year to support the next class of instructors.
Bob has worked with thousands of kids through the YMCA program, continually expanding it as he gets one location up and running. He encourages all Certified Instructors to pursue an avenue that rings their bell. “That’s the key. It has to be something you enjoy,” Bob says. “I work with YMCA summer camps. Maybe someone else wants to work with veterans or senior citizens or just a local garden club. If you can bring Square Foot Gardening into a venue that is important to you, you’ve got it made.”