Did you know you could learn how to garden at Phoenix House Academy of San Diego? The spacious campus in the hills of Descanso features an organic garden, created and managed by students enrolled in our residential treatment program. Two years ago, one of the teens in residence at that time, asked his family to donate funds for the garden. With the enthusiastic support of dedicated staff, the garden was built and continues to benefit new generations of teens.
The garden consists of six raised beds, supported by wooden beams and filled with organic soil. Two rectangular beds are 4′ x 8′ and four square beds are 4′ by 4′. Together they provide enough space to grow an assortment of greens, fruit, and vegetables.
The garden is managed by one resident assigned to this task as his/her “job function.” The gardener, “Brandon,” is assisted by other students, working as volunteers. They are responsible for planting, weeding, watering, and picking the assortment of organic produce. These may include fresh greens (various types of lettuce, spinach, and herbs), fruit (strawberries) and vegetables (radishes, Swiss chard, artichokes, beets, broccoli, cauliflower and tomatoes).
The task is not easy, as the mountains around Descanso have a shorter growing season than the coastal areas of San Diego. The winters are cold, with frequent snowfall. Last year, the fruit trees (plum, apple, and peach) flowered in January, but a snowstorm destroyed their flowers and very few ripened into fruit. Unfortunately, it seems that the same disaster struck this year – trees bloomed early in unusually warm January weather. Then, they were covered with snow and ice during a sudden frost in February. We will see if any fruit will develop after that.
The young man responsible for the vegetable garden was really worried that he might lose his plantings to recent snowstorms. He had planted lettuce, spinach and several kinds of herbs. In order to protect the plants, he has been covering them each night, making sure that the covers are snugly fitted and that they are removed every morning. So far so good: the plants survived the February frost!
But that lesson spiked the student’s creativity. Brandon and his friends decided to build a small greenhouse to protect the garden from inclement weather. The students have found a suitable patch of land on campus and are preparing a proposal to the Academy’s director, hoping that it will be approved and they will be able to start soliciting donations. A small structure would not require the running water or electricity; it would just shelter the growing plants.
Antonet O’Toole, Phoenix House Academy staff overseeing the garden project, makes sure that students have an opportunity to make independent decisions about the garden – what to plant, where and when… and how to share the workload… She said:
“Over the last two years the garden has served a great number of kids who are city-dwellers and no longer have a connection to a village or a garden where people grow their food. Even those who do not work in the garden benefit from it. They have a first-hand opportunity to witness how food travels from the garden to the table.”
Students see plants flourish when cared for. They eat the fruit and vegetables they have grown to add variety to their meals. They learn about garden design, various types of vegetables, and the principles of organic gardening. They practice work ethics – how to be responsible and dedicated, not forgetting about daily tasks, and how to work together, as a team. These valuable lessons are an important aspect of substance abuse treatment.