How does Ripon garden grow? With care, amazement, patience – all in a row

Chubby fingers closed around the bright stem of a rainbow chard. Blunted scissors cut awkwardly into the bright green leaf, each tiny triangle placed methodically into an orange bucket.

Oliver Fernandes, 4, approached the harvest with solemn purpose. It took older hands to fill the bucket, but his contribution would help feed the hungry.

Oliver and his siblings were among 30-plus kids trimming chard and pulling beets Thursday at the Oak Valley Youth Garden in Ripon, a free children’s gardening project run by Sarah Darpinian and Elizabeth Schuiling.

“Our area is so rich in agriculture. It’s the bread basket of California, and we want kids to learn about growing things,” Darpinian said.

The young crews, up to 60 in a session, plant and weed seven raised beds, donating what they grow to the Modesto Gospel Mission and the St. Vincent de Paul Society in Manteca.

Story time, crafts and science lessons weave into the mix of twice a month morning sessions attended by many home schooling families. Summer in the garden kicks off June 12.

“I like coming out and helping people who don’t have a lot – this all gets donated,” said Cora Rose Allison, 12, as she pinched off vibrant green leaves. Cora was the oldest among dozens of preschool and grade school gardeners that day, leaning over to show younger crews where to clip and where to take a full bucket.

“It’s a nice way to get outdoors and spend time with other kids. It gives us a chance to do something we can’t do at home,” said Elsbeth Morita, standing with her 5-year-old daughter, Gabbie.

The Moritas have a yard, she said, but no time to keep up a producing garden. That sad fact of modern life means too many kids do not know where their food comes from, said Sharon Butler, who with husband Mike runs the Ripon Community Garden.

“So many kids don’t have any idea their carrots don’t come out of a bag at Save Mart (Supermarkets),” Butler said. The Butlers tend 12 beds, raising produce given away to Ripon senior citizens.

Volunteers staff the 2 ¼-acre plot of free-rent land contributed by a farmer, paying for city water through donations. What started as a suggestion on the Love Ripon Facebook page has blossomed, you might say, into rows of raised planters and a micro-community of gardeners.

Butler’s dreams for the future include tee-pees, tunnels of bean vines, a butterfly garden and human sundial. “We’re a work in progress,” she said.

But even without such amenities, the garden provides.

“It’s a great thing to incorporate into a homeschool routine. This counts as our science,” said Hayley McMillen, who brings her two sons – Henry Gracey, 2, and Troy Gracey. 5.

Besides adding to botanical knowledge, on Thursday mom Lauri Heida gave a lesson on garden pests – the six-legged and four-legged varieties – to a circle of kids.

Holding a picture of a fluffy white cottontail aloft, she asked if rabbits were garden helpers or garden pests.

“I love bunnies,” called out one of the younger voices. “But they eat carrots,” called back an older one.

The nonprofit Oak Valley Youth Garden is free, but donations are welcome. Sessions will run 9-10:30 a.m. every Monday from June 12-Aug. 7. For information, email or visit

Nan Austin: 209-578-2339, @NanAustin