Children at St. Dominic Daycare work on their new garden.
Children at St. Dominic Daycare work on their new garden.
A Madison County Master Gardener has given new meaning to having a “green thumb,” with the establishment of nine small gardens in the metro he helps cultivate with over 235 people — primarily those with special needs. 

John Malanchak of Madison has established locations in Brandon, Clinton, Jackson and Madison and serves 100 special needs children and adults. In addition, he works with another 135 children in developing their gardening skills.

Malanchak’s vision began with a $2,000 grant from the Hinds County Master Gardeners Association. 

Growing up in Pittsburg, around steel mills, factories, and the Pittsburg Steelers, he and his parents interestingly were not gardeners.

“The only vegetables I ate were what my dad brought home on a pizza. That was it.” Malanchak said jokingly. “We were a meat and potatoes family.” 

The person in his family who did garden however, was his grandfather, who was from Russia. He didn’t speak any English, but he was often exposed to his grandfather working in the garden, who tended it everyday religiously. 

After moving to Mississippi, he officially started growing a garden in the house he and his wife bought. To officially become a Master Gardener, he took 10 courses through the Mississippi State University Extension Service and completed them all in one month. 

“The MSU Extension Service changed my life.” Malanchak said. 

He was inspired to do this service project through a series of events, but most importantly, through an interaction he had with a child he had worked with while he was volunteering at St. Dominic a couple years ago.  

The sheer appreciation he received from the boy’s father was well worth stepping outside of his comfort zone. A co-worker later told him one day that he should use his passion of gardening to help others and the rest is history. 

“If you’d asked me five years ago what I’d be doing, it sure wouldn’t be doing this.” Malanchak said “God just turned me around and said, ‘this is what I want you to do.’”

One of the organizations Malanchak works with is The Mustard Seed in Brandon.

“Just to see the dedication of a volunteer is a rewarding thing for us to see and a reminder that we’re not alone in our efforts to care for and encourage the lives of adults with disabilities,” Del Harrington, executive director of The Mustard Seed, said.  

Malachak also gardens with children like those at the Little Lighthouse, St. Dominic’s Daycare, and the Hindu Temple Society of Mississippi, among several others. 

“It’s really fun! It’s a perfect opportunity to garden because my dad’s not really a good gardener so we don’t get to pick all these vegetables,” said Aarayan Sultania, with freshly picked carrots in his hands. 

Sultania and the other 70 kids at the Temple’s Sunday School had a chance to tend to the garden and harvest the lettuce, radishes, green onion, and carrots growing. They even had a chance to eat a fresh salad with these even fresher ingredients.

“He’s a pretty good guy, hard worker, [and] is persistent with followups,” Teddrick Turrell, program assistant at Baptist Adult Day Health Services, said. “It’s been great. Everyday, they come in, they want to get out and see how the progress has been going with the garden. They have been very active with it, they want to water it, they want to plant other things as well.” 

“I think it is wonderful that he approached us with the information and that he wanted to do something with the children,” Ms. Fannie Harper, director of the childcare center at St. Dominic, said. “It gives them another sense of nature, and helps them to see how things are grown.” 

“Season 1, ”as Malanchak calls it, is wrapping up. Plans are underway to build onto the gardens already in place to make it them more accessible and more fruitful for everyone, like for those who aren’t able to walk outside to the garden tables at the Baptist Adult Health Service Center. And to yield the highest crop for next year, he plans to start Season 2 of by early-March.

Also In the works for Season 2 are four more gardens throughout the metro with two scheduled to come in January at Hope Hollow Ministries in Canton and one at Grace Ministries, part of Broadmoor Baptist Church in Madison. Other locations eyed for more gardens are Magnolia Speech School and Mississippi School for the Blind and Deaf, both in Jackson. 

Malanchak is even seeking to run a similar garden program in Israel and Germany via Skype.

“I have a passion the universe can’t contain. And it’s all because of the guy up there,” Malanchak concluded.