WITH painter-like accuracy, Andrew DeLollis spreads sand around a dish-garden of succulents with a long silver spoon.
``I'm dressing it up,'' he announces, without looking up. Next, he will number each succulent and then identify it on a corresponding card. Andrew, 10, is one of a hundred young people participating in the Junior Amateur Horticulture Competition at the New England Flower Show.
As the slogan goes: You're never too young to have a green thumb.
Anyone 16 years or younger may enter a plant in one of eight classifications: foliage plant, flower plant, cactus or succulent plant, dish garden, terrarium (in a recycled container, please), citrus-family plant, plant rooted in water, plant grown from seed, and ``Challenge Oak'' (oak seedlings grown from acorns.)
Exhibitors are responsible for correctly identifying their plant with both its botanical name and its common name. Winners are selected from three age groups.
As one might suspect, many young people get their green thumbs from their parents.
ANDREW started growing plants at age 4 with help from his mother, Rita DeLollis, a gardening enthusiast. Proudly showing off Andrew's paphiopedilum - slipper orchid - she says, ``Kids learn and really enjoy seeing something develop.''
Kaitlin and Sarah O'Connor, aged 8 and 10, became interested in gardening because their sandbox didn't have a bottom.
``We grew watermelon - a real little one, but the frost killed it,'' Sarah explains. ``I like watching things grow and tasting what it makes,'' she adds. Sarah's entry is a Mikkel Bingo, a succulent, and Kaitlin's is a Dark Marie, a Christmas cactus.
Cactuses seem to be favorites. Liz Ann Chapin, co-chairwoman of the Junior Amateur Horticulture division, offers a simple explanation: ``They don't demand a lot of attention.'' Mrs. Melville Chapin, as she likes to be called, has been working with the juniors for five years; she's been involved in the New England Flower show since the 1950s.
Chapin is a woman who clearly loves her work. ``I have the best job in the world,'' she says, before greeting another young competitor with ``Oh, isn't that lovely!'' The number of junior competitors has grown from 10 (five years ago) to more than 100 this year. But, Chapin says, ``I want two hundred.'' She has been known to run around the flower show handing out promotional cards to kids - encouraging them to grow something and enter it next year. ``Success breeds success,'' she says. ``I love to see them beaming through their plants.''
One year, she recalls, a girl brought in a tiny ear of corn grown from a popcorn kernel. ``That really boggled my mind,'' Chapin says.
Another year, she remembers, a refugee boy entered a plant given to him by a neighbor whose lawn he cut. ``He was so proud. We have a lot of stories like that,'' Chapin says.
This year's hit includes a tall orange-tree seedling that a 10-year-old boy grew from a breakfast-orange seed. Several entries are group efforts from community garden clubs, school classes, and a Girl Scout troop.
``I think it's wonderful,'' says Vicki Coderre, a member of the Village Garden Club in Andover, Mass. and a former teacher who has come here today with the DeLollis family. ``It teaches responsibility and encourages their creativity and design.'' On top of everything else, they learn which plants are from which parts of the country, she adds.
When asked why kids should get involved in horticulture and gardening, Alison Falb, age 9, answers, ``Because it's fun, and if you do it now you'll be really good later, and you can improve your house.''
Alison won a blue ribbon for her oak seedling last year. Unfortunately, it had a short life back in her yard. ``Someone stepped on it,'' she says with a shrug. ``I think it was the neighbor's dog.''
CHAPIN'S justification for all the awards is a bit more philosophical: ``I'm hoping to make really caring citizens. The world would be a better place if children really grew things,'' she says, suggesting that they would care more about people and life in general.
She adds: ``Once you begin to look outside yourself and care for something, it does make you a better person.''
* The New England Spring Flower Show continues at the Bayside Expo Center in Boston through March 13. Friday and Saturday hours are 10 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.; Sunday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.