Washington Master Gardener Volunteers partnered with boys from the Juvenile Detention Center to cultivate their own garden. Four raised bed gardens behind the OSU Extension Office in Washington County were used for teaching individuals the art of gardening. From the beginning, most of the actual labor was provided as a community service by boys from the nearby Juvenile Detention Center. Three years ago they decided that if the boys were going to work the garden that it should be their garden and so we began an experiment.
Instead of only calling the boys over when the weeds were out of control, it started in early March with the boys coming to the extension office to meet with the MGVs. They were presented with a stack of garden seed catalogs.
The MGVs asked a simple question: “OK boys, it’s your garden, what do you want to grow?” With some guidance from several MGVs they were able to settle on a reasonable list of garden crops (and a few unlikely ‘experimental’ choices) and they were off and gardening. The boys prepared the beds, planted the seeds and learned to nurture the plants. They performed every task from planting through harvest (including making the harvest look like something the cooks would want to work with). Throughout the process we like to think we observed some growth in the garden in boys as well as in plants. There are a surprising number of ‘teaching moments’ that present themselves in a garden with a group of teenage boys.
The boys work in the garden as a group with several Master Gardener mentors every other Saturday for two hours. Each session is started with an observation garden tour followed by a discussion about what needs to be done. At the end the session, the work day is summarized with a short discussion about what new things have been learned - life lessons as well as garden lessons. During critical times throughout the growing season the boys visited the garden between formal sessions (without the MGV mentors) to water and pull weeds. Most of the produce grown is taken to the Juvenile Center for use there but there have been several ‘bumper crops’ of sweet potatoes that were donated to a local food pantry.
In addition to planting, weeding, thinning and harvesting the crops, the boys have made several other improvements to the garden. They installed rain barrels, built a rack to store tools, built and operate two compost bins to recycle waste plant material, installed new and improved fencing and built a fourth raised bed specifically to be able to grow some fruit trees.
This year the boys have decided to try to extend the gardening season as long as possible. Towards that end, one of the beds was seeded with a variety of cool weather crops and a tunnel of plastic sheeting was built. So far, the crops are doing well (thanks to plenty of watering during our recent dry spell) and they expect to harvest some greens well into early winter.