BOOK REVIEW/Heather Seggel

Getting Back to the Garden

Growing a Life: Teen Gardeners Harvest Food, Health, and Joy
By Illène Pevec, Ph.D.
(New Village Press, $21.95)

There’s a small park, just a one-block square with some trees and benches, about four blocks from my apartment. Between personal life events that have been stressful and the overwhelming impact of this election, I have found myself there a few times without even realizing it was my destination. If it’s wet I stay on the paved pathways and make a lap or two around before trying to figure out what I’m actually supposed to be doing. If it’s a nice day, as it was today, it’s worth it to walk through the dewy grass and find a bench in the sun, to just take a moment and be in a green space before returning to the gray reality around me.

This interaction with the natural world is not just valued in the world of good vibes and kale smoothies. It turns out that when we create gardens they create us in turn, and science can back up these claims. Author Illène Pevec spent nearly a decade working with youth gardening programs, visiting the schools and interviewing participants, then linking their impressions to studies that illuminate why people and plants combine so fruitfully. Growing A Life: Teen Gardeners Harvest Food, Health, and Joy is insightful and inspiring.

Pevec visited gardens across the US in her research, but she opens the book with the story of the Green Bronx Machine. Teacher Stephen Ritz takes kids who are failing out of school and brings them into his Sustainable Technologies class, which pays them for the work they do in the school’s rooftop garden and on external projects as well, while offering them skills for which there’s a proven demand. His students created a vertical garden or “living wall” for NBC studios among other locations in the city.

Working with plants means learning about math and science, and the kids do learn more readily in this environment, but the effects go well beyond academics. Many of the kids Pevec interviewed have lost family members — not a single one had a father living at home — and they view Ritz as a father figure and their fellow students as siblings. Graduates of the program encourage those still in it to persevere and focus on getting into college. And the evolution from junk food fans with quick tempers to kids who can compromise and defuse conflict while sheepishly admitting to a new appreciation for salad seems to occur across the board.

In some cases Pevec takes the students’ words and edits them (without changing them) into poems. Her interaction with them in interviews is a delight to read, though, as she asks about their sensory awareness while planting, then gently folds in information about the science that supports their instincts. She also encourages them to take pride in their work; some are reluctant, but many express a kind of awe at the experience of planting a tree. One teenage boy from Oakland, Calif., became a consultant without even trying; when a neighbor saw the results Ramón was getting with compost tea from his school’s garden, he asked for help planting a tree that the young gardener notes is still thriving to this day.

The reasons this is all good for young people in particular seem obvious once they’re spelled out. It’s a collaborative act that requires cooperation. It’s work done with the hands in three dimensions, which contributes to brain development in important ways. Gardening is mindful work by definition; virtually every student interviewed talked about how their concentration and attention were improved not just by taking a break from screens, but by doing work where close attention was required for success. Growing food that shows up in school lunches creates a sense of pride and desire to build on that success, and also makes healthy eating the norm. Many of Stephen Ritz’s students shifted from junk food to reaching for fruit and water and became fit themselves after seeing him transform from overweight to so slender his belt kept needing new holes punched in it.

Pevec recently read at my neighborhood bookstore in Ukiah, Calif. It’s the county seat in a rural area, and most of the schools here have some sort of gardening program, but when she asked those in attendance if gardening was de rigeur among people with such easy access to plants, the response was tepid at best. Kids were into sports, and very involved with their screens. For many the school programs were their only exposure to gardening. Rooftop gardens in the Bronx and neighborhood reclamation projects in inner cities are rightly heralded for bringing a bit of forest to areas most in need of cleaner air and some serenity, but even kids in agricultural communities benefit when these skills are offered. Growing A Life offers a close look at the benefits of getting young hands in the soil, and they go well beyond a bumper crop of spinach.

Heather Seggel is a writer based in Ukiah, California. She used to have a garden but is currently in the process of covertly nasturtiumizing a strip of dirt outside her apartment. Email

From The Progressive Populist, January 1-15, 2017

Blog | Current Issue | Back Issues | Essays | Links

About the Progressive Populist | How to Subscribe | How to Contact Us

Copyright © 2016 The Progressive Populist

PO Box 819, Manchaca TX 78652