The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

June 24, 2013

Garden of gifts: Woman's backyard harvest becomes teaching tool for students

By Andra Bryan Stefanoni
Globe Staff Writer

ORONOGO, Mo. — On spring break, when her students are on beaches or visiting family back home, Becky Brannock starts planting. Into a garden plot on rural Oronogo soil freshly tilled by Jim, her husband of 30 years, she sows seeds for lettuce, spinach, radishes, beets and peas.

About the time her students are studying for their final exams the first of May, she plants zucchini, corn, beans and cucumbers.

Each summer, Brannock chooses to teach just one summer session instead of two so she can spend July harvesting and canning.

"I love to plant things and watch them grow," she said. "I suppose it's that way in both my garden and my classroom."

Planting students

Brannock, 53, is a professor in the Department of Psychology and Counseling at Pittsburg State University, and her students are among those who reap the fruits of her labor.

Next to the rows of other produce, she plants tomatoes, jalepe–os, bell peppers, onions and cilantro. After harvesting it at the end of each summer, just as students are gearing up to return to campus, the bounty goes into 24 to 36 jars of Brannock's homemade salsa.

"Then at the end of the semester, we talk about the diversity of students they'll one day work with," Brannock said. "To wrap up, we have a multicultural food day, and I ask each member of my class to bring a food representative of his or her ethnic or family background."

Her strawberries, blueberries and apple, plum and pear trees provide fruits she uses to make jams and jellies. Brannock uses jars of it as gifts for neighbors, fellow faculty members and guest speakers who agree to share expertise with her class.

The last row in her garden is reserved for growing zinnia flowers, also with the students in mind. About 120 students in her educational psychology classes are the recipients of seeds, which she distributes in envelopes filled from her coffee can cache.

"After they've bloomed, I save the deadheads and use those to distribute at the end of the semester to students," Brannock said. "I use the analogy that as future teachers and school counselors, we are planting seeds with our students for their futures. We may never be able to visually see the benefits of the harvest until many years later, if at all, but we continue to plant those seeds regardless to lead to better futures for all."

Continued growth

Matt DeMoss, who teaches special education in Riverton, said that he planted the seeds Brannock gave him four years ago.

"She brought a lot of passion to her classroom," DeMoss said. "She had 100 kids in the class, but she still took the time to involve each individual student. It really inspired me; she was a role model for the kind of teacher I wanted to become. The last day, I grabbed a handful of seeds. As you're becoming an educator, you try to pick up good things from good educators."

The seeds soon flourished as zinnias in his backyard garden -- until this spring, when he lost them to the late freeze.

"But it was always something that was cool, because when you saw them you always remembered where you got them from," he said.

Girard resident Chelsea Boore, a graduate in psychology now working on her master's degree in school counseling, was a seed recipient two years ago.

"As she gave us the seeds, she explained that, as a teacher, it is like you are spreading seeds of knowledge and you have no idea how many lives you will be impacting through this," Boore said.

Like DeMoss's seeds, Boore's also sprouted and flourished.

"My grandma asked if she could take some of the seeds once they began to die off, so now Dr. Brannock's beautiful zinnias are not only growing in my garden, but also my grandma's," Boore said. "I think this is a wonderful illustration of the positive impact that educators have on so many lives."

Passing it on

Brannock, in turn, has been on the receiving end of the pass-it-on mentality of another gardener, Ida Gilmore, now 102 and a former neighbor of the Brannocks when they lived in Monett.

"She gave us blackberry plants several years ago from her place," Brannock said.

She said she cherishes the plants because they were a gift from a friend, and now feels a responsibility as their caretaker.

"I pick, freeze and take them to (Ida) when I am able," she said. "When I made blackberry jelly out of it for my colleagues, I attached a little note with it that explained how we acquired the plants. I guess I'm kind of into 'pass it on.'"

Brannock has been passing on what she grows since she and Jim settled their one and a half acres in 1996. But gardens as a central focus of her life dates to her childhood in St. Louis, where her mother and father gardened and canned, and passed on their love of growing things to their daughter.