Hope Lives in Youth Garden Projects


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Recently I attended the “Ripe from Downtown Symposium” in Cleveland. Sponsored by the Cleveland Botanical Garden, it sought to bring together people from across the country who work with youth garden projects.

My reason for attending this conference was to present two programs on youth garden projects. As the subject of youth gardens can cover a wide range of projects, prior to presenting at the “Ripe” conference I began a dialog with various people from similar projects around the country to discuss their definitions for a youth garden. I visited with folks at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum in Minneapolis, where I found that their youth garden project is primarily a teaching garden. I visited with folks in San Antonio and Philadelphia, where their gardens are completely hands on.

After visiting with many others in similar projects, I soon came up with a firm idea for what constitutes a youth garden project; I also discovered two distinct differences of opinion about such gardening projects. The philosophy of one, which I came to call the “Minnesota Model,” involves building displays that entice children to come and see the plants and roots and learn how the garden grows.

The other, which I call the “Philadelphia Model,” assigns a piece of land to each child, or a communal piece that they work on together, and the children are taught how to plan, till, plant, tend and harvest a garden. Both models have great merit and each uses a very different approach.

When I arrived in Cleveland, I admit I was expecting the conference to be peopled mostly with administrative types along with lots of well-meaning volunteers. What I found, instead, was a hard-working bunch of dedicated adults and children. Imagine my surprise at finding that a symposium on youth garden projects would actually include kids!

The children—ages 10 through 18—who came to this symposium were not kids wishing they were elsewhere. They didn’t hang back, looking as though they felt their lives would be improved if they could just get their hands on a PlayStation 2. No, these kids had notebooks; they asked questions; they followed the adults around and asked for clarification. There were kids from 29 states, this time with adults in tow. They brought with them displays of their own, examples of what they produced in their own gardens.

We tasted salsa and maple syrup, viewed displays of how land gets polluted and worked on dozens of other projects dreamed up and created by the young people. We toured the Cleveland Botanical Garden’s Youth Garden Project, which is exemplary. In that project, small garden plots are assigned to individuals and teams of young people. They’re taught how to start seedlings, how to weed and mulch and water, then they’re turned loose to make a real garden. Some choose flowers to be added to theirs, some have more herbs than others, but all are encouraged to grow some tomatoes. The children harvest the tomatoes in addition to the basil, garlic, onions and peppers they grow throughout the season and turn them into “Ripe From Downtown Salsa,” which is vacuum-packed for sale. Sale proceeds from the salsa plow money back into the garden projects.

One young man, probably 11 years old, sat on the front row of both of my programs writing in his notebook. I assumed that nothing in the marketing program would be of interest, so he must be doing artwork. Later, when I was sitting at lunch, I learned different. The boy’s mother asked if she and the boy could join me. As we ate and visited, the young man said to me, “I have a question. Wait, I have to turn to my notes,” and as he thumbed through, he grinned at me and said, “I took three pages of notes in your last program. I hope you don’t mind.”

I went to the conference with modest hopes for learning and sharing about youth garden projects. What I came away with was a renewed optimism that young, new gardeners are coming along behind us. I see that new eyes and minds will continue the very love of plants we gardeners share. In one young man’s eyes and notes, I saw the hope for the newer generation. There is a strong future for gardening and it exists in our young people.

Jim Long’s newest book, It Won’t Hurt to Try It (Long Creek Herbs, 2003), based on an 1859 Civil War–era herb formulas diary, can be seen at Readers’ questions and comments are always welcome at