Master Gardener May Lee stands about a head taller than the third-graders at Farnsworth Elementary she is teaching to plant native seeds this March morning in east St. Paul. Clearly, she is in her element.

Elementary students check soil for proper moisture before planting native seeds.
Lee helps Farnsworth Elementary students understand the importance of soil moisture for planting native seeds.

Equal parts agronomist and grandmother, she demonstrates how to plant the native seeds for the species butterfly milkweed:

  • add water to the planting soil so that it will make a small ball in your fist;
  • spread out the soil evenly in a flat;
  • sprinkle native seeds that have been “stratified” (refrigerated for the past two months in vermiculite to simulate winter) on top of the soil;
  • add a bit more soil and vermiculite;
  • spritz the seeds with water, as well as the inside of a dome top for the flat;
  • place the covered flat under the grow lights.


Students plant native seeds
Farnsworth Elementary third-graders plant native seeds that have been refrigerated for at least two months — to simulate winter — before planting.


Lee has spent the last four years helping teach others — both elementary students and young farmers — what she grew up doing in Laos: growing vegetables organically.

But she notes that when she came to the U.S., in 1981, she “didn’t know how to hold a pencil.” Inspired to become a master gardener to learn the English words for the horticultural practices she already knew, she is now not only mentoring and teaching, but also running a certified organic farm, “Mhonpaj’s Garden” (named for her daughter) at Wilder Forest near Marine on Saint Croix.

Each year, Lee, her three sisters, four brothers, children and grandchildren grow more than 80 vegetable varieties, which they sell at St. Paul’s Farmer’s Market and give to Neighborhood House and Second Harvest. Lee’s whirl of activities includes not only planting and growing the vegetables, but also organizing the rotation of cover crops, ordering seeds, planning each plot, coordinating with a bee-keeper, raising chickens, offering workshops on health and nutrition, and bringing produce to at least three local farmers’ markets.

May Lee checks native seed planting results.
Lee surveys growth of the native seed sprouts planted two weeks earlier.


At Farnsworth, the results of her labors also surround her. Sprouts of wild geranium and Prairie Blazing Star, native seeds she planted with the students two weeks ago are flourishing; city kids are having fun getting dirty; and fellow master gardeners are scheming with her where they’ll teach next.

Native seeds sprout under the care of the Farnsworth Elementary students.
Flats of native species the Farnsworth students planted flourish under their care.


Asked why she does this, she says with a smile, “We need to save the earth!” noting the many benefits of planting natives — providing food and habitat for native birds and insects, contributing to healthier soil and water, and needing less maintenance since natives are adapted to local climates.

Elementary students design seed packets.
Students hand-design seed packets for native species.


“Gardening is peaceful; it benefits children, the earth, and the environment; and it’s good for your health,” she adds.


For more on the benefits of native plants to clean water, visit:


For more information on how to germinate native seeds, visit:



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