Asia Freeman and the other third-grade gardeners at Emlen School may not be certified locavores yet.

But after a spring spent planting and tending a vegetable garden outside their East Mount Airy school, they've learned to dig in lettuce and radish seeds, tomato and pepper plants; to water and weed; and to ponder questions of food and nutrition that bedevil some of us for a lifetime.

Such as: What did we just eat? What's in it? And, this is a biggie: Why did we eat it?

About a dozen kids were involved in the after-school garden club, which just finished its second year. They were guided by Julie Cox and Heidi Foster, volunteers with the Pennsylvania State University master-garden program in Philadelphia, who appear to have planted some seeds of their own.

Asia, for example, has begun to see that, though small, these two makeshift raised beds contain not just vegetables, but also large lessons involving cooperation, responsibility, and respect for all living things.

"Gardening is fun and it's hard work 'cause you have to plant and water and you get weeds. I was excited to plant my first garden," Asia says in one long breath.

Cox is a retired psychiatric nurse and Foster is a retired teacher. Both have a keen interest in gardening, in "giving back" and helping kids understand that, as Foster says, "that thing they got in the grocery store was, at some point, a plant.

"They have to be able to understand what they eat and why they eat it, how it's grown and how it gets to their table," Foster says. "We're into healthy eating."

Master gardeners are into a lot of things. The Penn State program, offered in 57 of 67 counties across the state, requires graduates to do 50 hours of gardening volunteer work the first year and 20 hours a year after that. New Jersey's program, run in 18 of 21 counties through Rutgers University, requires even more.

"We are, first and foremost, a volunteer training program. . . . and the volunteer demand from consumers is growing," says Nicholas Polanin, coordinator of New Jersey's master-gardener programs.

Master gardeners staff horticultural hotlines in their county offices, answering questions about lawn care and stink bugs, canning and composting. Delaware County's hotline gets almost 7,000 calls a year, says master-gardener coordinator Linda Barry, "and that doesn't include when I just answer the phone."

Volunteers also talk to garden clubs and schoolchildren. They do horticultural therapy and give gardening advice at county fairs and nursing homes, the common thread being free information that is unbiased and research-based, from university sources.

Given the Internet, you'd think there'd be less call for that. "Everybody Googles. I Google. But there's a ton of bad information on the Internet," says Meredith Melendez, master-gardener coordinator in Burlington County.

Master-gardener programs are part of the states' Cooperative Extensions, which were established by Congress in 1914 at universities around the country to "extend" agricultural and scientific information developed there to farmers and others. The mission has evolved to include more help for home gardeners.

Classes typically are held once a week for 12 to 14 weeks, covering subjects like botany, plant pathology and propagation, soil, insects, and pruning. They can be during the day or at night, and the cost varies.

Delaware County, for example, charges $125 and Philadelphia $170 with a $50 refund at graduation; Chester and Burlington Counties require $225.

And while some programs have waiting lists, Philadelphia is recruiting for the next class, which starts Aug. 24. "We definitely want to increase our ranks," says program coordinator Kim Labno.

Meanwhile, volunteers like Cox and Foster are out there quietly sharing their passion for plants with children whose lives are a jumble of competing interests.

"The first year, we kind of planned it as we went along and sometimes it felt like we were doing elaborate babysitting," Cox recalls. "This year, we were more organized and a lot of the kids are quite interested in what we're doing."

Asia and her pals chose garden club over belly-dancing, fashion, or art groups. "Garden club is pretty big," says Todd Matte of AmeriCorps, who coordinates Emlen's after-school activities for the nonprofit EducationWorks.

The task one day last week was to draw a vegetable mural, while enjoying a healthy snack of sliced green, yellow and red peppers, zucchini, yellow squash, and carrots - with a low-fat ranch dip.

"They favor ranch dressing on everything," Foster says, "but we try not to use that every time."

A few noses crinkle at the squash and one boy suggests the zucchini is actually a pickle. But everything gets eaten and the mural gets painted, although some kids like the smell of the markers more than the idea of drawing. Others are squabbling over a chair.

Oh well. These guys are only 9 years old. They're busy drawing tomatoes, eating carrots with ranch dressing, sniffing markers and listening, sort of, to Cox and Foster talk about fresh food.

It's fun, and the grown-ups in the room can only hope that the seeds they're planting will someday have a happy harvest.

Contact gardening writer Virginia A. Smith at 215-854-5720 or vsmith@phillynews.com.