The National Junior Horticulture Association's annual conference is taking place this weekend in Lexington. Students ages 5- 22 — many of whom have earned top marks in their regional and state 4-H, FFA or Grange competitions — will participate in lectures, a photography contest, a plant identification challenge and even a Next Top Chef-style series of cooking demonstrations.
The public is invited to attend free presentations on Saturday morning by NJHA members on garden how-to topics ranging from an unusual Hugelkultur raised bed technique to fresh green cuisine demonstrations that include tangy Texas Caviar salsa and sweet Snap, Crackle, Peanut waffles.
For Lexi Gegare, a student at the University of Wisconsin and this year's youth officer team president, participating in the NJHA is a family tradition.
"I was brought up in NJHA," she says. "Both my mom and grandmother were active national members."
The association's goals go beyond learning about horticulture to include leadership development and service. When the officer team visited Lexington this past June, time was scheduled for pulling weeds along the Legacy Trail.
"We always do some kind of service project to help the communities where we have our conferences," Gegare says.
The association also collaborates with organizations like the American Society for Horticultural Science, Longwood Gardens and others to provide opportunities for students to participate in career development opportunities. Gegare, a native of Milton, Wis., looks toward a career based in recreational therapy, and volunteers to create garden opportunities at a local retirement community. She'll be sharing her colorful Texas Caviar salsa in a cooking demonstration at the conference.
A wide variety of horticultural subjects will be presented at the conference. Here are a few examples:
■ Hannah Pilgreen, a junior at Faith Christian School in Rocky Mount, N.C., who won a gold medal in her state 4-H contest, is bringing Hannah's H2O Tricks to the national conference. Water conservation in the home landscape and garden by use of proper mulching, watering and soil preparation techniques is the basis for her environmentally friendly tricks.
■ Snap, Crackle, Peanut! is the way Kayla Bollenbecker introduces her nutritious peanut-based waffle recipe. Peanuts are an important horticultural crop in her home state of North Carolina. Blueberries, a strawberry, and banana garnish add a red, white and blue theme. Hopefully, she'll share samples. A sophomore at Mount Pleasant High School and a 4-H member, this is her first national convention.
■ Alea Hunsucker has already put the benefits of her presentation, Hugelkulture: the Ultimate Raised Bed Garden, to good use during two mission trips to Haiti this year. Hunsucker, 15, is from Lexington, N.C., and is a home-schooled student.
This method of constructing long, compostable six to 10-foot high mounds of organic material over decomposing logs which retain moisture as well as release nutrients to plants growing on them was brought to light by Austrian Sepp Holzer in the 1960s.
In Haiti, where lack of rainfall limits growing potential, the water-retention abilities of these large mounds make a longer season possible. Hunsucker will construct a model of a Hugelkultur mound as part of her presentation.
Think this might be a valuable activity for your child? NJHA advisor Ted Beebe offers some advice to newcomers.
"This conference is a prime time to come and check out what we're all about. Then, join in and make plans to attend next year in Orlando," he says.
Founded in 1935, the NJHA will celebrate its 90th anniversary in 2015. For more information on all it does, visit Njha.org.