The raised beds in the garden spill over. Uncontainable. Lush with green. Sunlight radiates, illuminating flowers in shades of purple, orange, and yellow. A trail of peppers string down their green stalk. Red and green lettuce, spinach, and kale burst out of the ground.
This garden is in a recreational space at Pima County Juvenile Detention. Since 2014, youth placed at the juvenile detention center spend time in the garden as they await finalization of their court processes before being released to a guardian, to treatment centers or group homes, or to the Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections.
Garden beds are constructed from restraint beds that juvenile detention no longer uses. The first kids in detention to work in the garden helped paint the steel frames in bright colors and then pressed their hands into purple, red, and yellow paint, leaving their prints on the wooden beds that rest inside the frames.
Though most of the kids who stay in detention make it to the garden, the length of their stay—with a typical stay being 18 to 21 days—determines whether they plant, harvest, or see seeds grow into mature plants and set fruit. Youth who work in the garden—three to eight at a time—volunteer or are selected. For a few, being allowed to work in the garden is a privilege for exercising good judgment and responsible behavior.
One young man, 17, points to the bed he helped plant near the beginning of his time here. He’s now at Day 54. “See that cabbage and broccoli,” he says. “They taught us to take that thing [a spade] and make a circular hole in the ground. It can’t be too deep—and you have to water it but not too much or it could drown.” His mom has always kept a garden, he says, but he never paid much attention.
Throughout his time in detention, this young gardener has learned how to seed and harvest, and how to identify various fruits and vegetables, herbs and flowers. “It’s relaxing. A lot of times you are in your room or you’re not outside except for an hour of gym … I like to come outside and water the plants and chill.”
Kim Chumley, a senior management analyst at Pima County Juvenile Court, remembers when, in 2011, the garden was just a few potted plants in the living units. Now, the garden fills half of a 2,600-square-foot recreational yard and is growing. The garden receives educational support from Pima County Master Gardeners, and donations of fertilizer, plants, and seeds from the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona and Native Seeds/SEARCH. The Pima County Public Library also provides support.
Chumley has been working with juveniles in the court system for 21 years, first as a probation officer in the courts, then as the first program coordinator in detention. When she first became program coordinator, providing programming for detained youth was a foreign concept. But over time, she has seen a shift in the mentality of the court.
“I’ll probably want to do some growing on the outs.”
Pima County Juvenile Court has moved to a “trauma-informed” model, which means that the staff has a comprehensive understanding of trauma, and works with youth in a way to manage potential triggers and avoid retraumatizing them. Chumley notes the high prevalence of youth who have been trauma-exposed, not only in Pima County, but within the juvenile justice system nationwide.
This trauma-informed model affects the way staff members understand the youth and has resulted in programming to help the young detainees, most of whom are between 15 and 17 years old. Yoga was the first program Chumley brought into the detention facility. Rick Wood, interim court director, was a certified yoga instructor and came down on his lunch hour to work with boys who Chumley says were “the roughest, had the most challenges behaviorally.” She noticed the impact of the class: “You could hear a pin drop. They were responsive, they really loved it. I thought: This is key. They really need to be active and working on things that are meaningful and things they can take with them when they leave here.” Over time, the programming grew to include visits by motivational speakers; a dog therapy program; technology classes; journaling; Alcoholics Anonymous; voluntary religious and spiritual groups; art projects; and the garden. “A lot of these kids need to be nurtured,” she says, “But they also need to learn how to nurture.”
Before Peggy Young retired and became a UA master gardener, she spent 13 years as an attorney in juvenile court. When Young retired, she decided to pursue a previous passion: horticulture, which she studied in college before choosing to go into law. She took a class at the University of Arizona to become a master gardener and, seeing an opportunity to marry her skills as a gardener and youth advocate, Young proposed expanding the previously established juvenile detention garden with Pima County Master Gardeners. After receiving approval, master gardeners began working in juvenile detention in September 2014. Since then, the six master gardeners rotate spending every other Sunday working with the youth.
On gardening days, the master gardeners arrive at 9:30 a.m. to assess needs—watering the garden, weeding, deadheading, fertilizing. When youth arrive at 10 a.m., they are assigned to a gardener and set of tasks, working until 11:30 a.m. The organically grown garden has flourished with mint, garlic, strawberries, eggplant, and melon. Fruit trees—peach and plum—were purchased with donations from judicial staff.
In addition to providing hands-on knowledge and support in the garden, the master gardeners also provide nutrition lessons to the youth, many of whom have never tasted some of the vegetables they grow. The master gardeners teach the youth about sugar consumption, fat content, and the benefit of eating whole grains instead of processed foods. They might measure out 17 teaspoons of sugar to see what goes into a bottle of soda, or seven teaspoons of Crisco to make a “blubber burger,” to see the amount of fat in a typical fast food burger. “You can see their eyes bulge out of their heads,” Young says. She says that the lessons stay with them for the long term. “They do remember these things. They get it. At some point in their lives, they can use it.”
Many of the youth at the detention center are facing tremendous obstacles: “Issues of abusive parenting, issues of neglect, drug issues—either the children or parents or both—mental health issues in the family,” says Young. “Many systemic problems. Some of these kids have a parent in jail and another parent struggling to make it … There are income issues, resource issues.”
Two of the essential inputs that go into the gardening project are time and attention. “With the gardening, it’s about being with these kids and showing them that we care,” Young says. “I had one kid ask me whether I was paid to come back to the garden and I said, ‘No, we like coming back here,’ and he asked, ‘Why?’ I said, ‘We enjoy working with you.’ We’re not here to make a paycheck; we’re here because we enjoy being with them and that makes a huge impression.”
Young has watched her fellow gardeners’ perspectives shift as they engage with the youth. “The advantage of working in the juvenile system as long as I did,” she says, “is you realize that these kids are kids.And they respond as kids, especially in the garden with the things they are interested in: bugs, worms, vegetables, flowers. They open up like kids everywhere open up.”
She says that she can see how the youth respond positively and transform after working with mentors, even after only a few hours.
Gardeners emphasize that the garden belongs to the youth. They ask detainees for planting suggestions and reiterate to them that they are the ones who plant, water, and fertilize so that the plants will grow.
Working in the garden also helps the youth build a sense of competency and confidence. One of the youth gardeners, 16, says, “I think this is one of the best programs we have because we actually get to come outside and take care of things.” The garden “teaches us new responsibilities.”
She says, “I learned how to take out plants by the roots. I learned to get leaves out for salads. It’s fun to come out here and do it. I like learning what plants you can eat. That’s my favorite part.” Jalapeños, lemon chives, and spearmint are her favorite plants. She notices when kitchen staff prepares salads using the food harvested from the garden. “I like it,” she says, “because I know I’m eating this food that we were taking care of.”
She says, “I’ll probably want to do some growing on the outs.”
At the end of each day of work in the garden, the youth harvest herbs and vegetables like lettuce, green peppers, and radishes to make their own salad. They mix the items in paper cups. Sometimes they are trying these foods for the first time. Young brings a thermos of hot water for tea, and the youth harvest mint and stevia from the garden beds and stir them in and pour the concoction over ice. Then they sit together, tasting the fruits of their labor. ✜
Lisa O’Neill hails from New Orleans but has made her second home in the desert, where she writes and teaches writing. Her favorite food to make is lemon icebox pie.