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story.lead_photo.caption Randy Forst (foreground) and Joellen Beard harvest greens from the teaching beds that Master Gardeners, facility employees and staff members from county agencies created behind the Pulaski County Juvenile Detention Center. (Special to the Democrat-Gazette/Janet B. Carson)

"To plant a garden, is to believe in tomorrow."

Audrey Hepburn

A sign with this sentiment is on the property of the Pulaski County Juvenile Detention Center youth garden. A more appropriate sentiment for this year, and for this facility, I cannot think of.

What we call "youth gardening" has been popular for more than 20 years, with extensive research showing the benefits of gardening for young people. Creating a garden at a youth detention center could have life-changing benefits.

With food insecurity a serious problem in society today, teaching young people to garden will instill in them life skills. Not only can they learn to grow their own fruits and vegetables, they can learn how to cook and preserve them. But gardening is not just about the end product. Gardening helps build an understanding of and respect for nature and our environment, it motivates people to eat and love fresh vegetables and fruit.

Gardening provides opportunities for hands-on learning, observation and experimentation; it promotes physical activity and quality outdoor time. It can also show young people where their food comes from. Gardening teaches patience and learning how to nurture and care for other living things.

Who wouldn't want these experiences for their children?

Several years ago, staff members at the detention center took some land in their courtyard and attempted a garden. They built some raised beds with wood and cinder blocks, but weeds were everywhere around the beds and maintenance was an ongoing problem.

RESOURCEFUL NEIGHBOR

Luckily, they knew what a resource they had in their neighbor, the Pulaski County office of the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture Cooperative Extension Service. Last year, Chastity Scifres, who is now the head of Pulaski County Human Resources, asked the county extension staff chair, Randy Forst, for help to refurbish their youth garden for some of their clients.

She wanted the young people in detention to know that Pulaski County believed in them and was investing in their future.

Pulaski County has the largest Master Gardeners program in the state, but that program also has the most Master Gardeners projects. So, instead of creating a new Master Gardeners project, Forst decided to ask for a few Master Gardeners to assist him with this garden as a community outreach. Since it is at a detention center, access is limited, and it was best to start with a small crew.

The space allotted for the garden was in a courtyard behind the juvenile detention center and adjacent to a roadway. The space had very limited, native soil. Forst got the assistance of three Master Gardeners volunteers, and they assessed the site and developed a plan.

Staff members from the Pulaski County sheriff's office and some day laborers cleared the site and leveled it.

Scifres and some staff members from Pulaski County General Services built 10 new raised beds in various sizes using pressure-treated lumber.

Gallery: Youth garden

NO MAINTENANCE

Industrial weed barrier was applied to the site. Once the beds were installed, a layer of industrial sand (a byproduct of gravel and donated by Granite Mountain Quarries) was placed around the beds to create easy walkways that require no maintenance.

Scifres used what she could find, and with talented workers from General Services, built and painted a chicken coop and rabbit hutches. Benches were installed, too. Road and Bridge employees helped haul the soil and industrial sand, and between them and General Services workers, got the beds filled and the garden ready to go.

The gardens were finally ready for planting in June. Unfortunately, although the beds were ready to get going, restrictions imposed to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus did not allow for interaction with the students. Instead, a dedicated group of four volunteers began planting and building the garden by themselves.

Instead of just vegetables, they also created a pollinator garden and an herb garden and installed blackberry plants. Future beds are in the works to be installed this winter for blueberries.

The volunteers worked hard to amend the soil and fertilized and watered by hand. Employees of the juvenile detention center help out with watering tasks throughout the week.

BIG HARVESTS

The garden has thrived. This dedicated group meets once a week to work on it. All of the produce that is harvested is weighed and recorded. Almost 400 pounds of produce were harvested since June from these raised beds. With limited cooking available indoors for the students, whatever can be eaten fresh is given to the students with their meals. Salad greens, fresh tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and radishes have been on the list as well as watermelons this summer.

County Family and Consumer Science agent Megan Wells gets some of whatever is in season, prepares it in the county extension office kitchen and delivers it hot to the juvenile detention center weekly with a recipe and evaluation sheets for the students to fill out. The week I was there, she brought in a large pan of cooked Hubbard squash, with a fresh squash to take with the dish to the classroom to show students what it looked like before it was their lunch. Any extra produce is donated to local charities.

The original concept for the garden was to interact with the students in planting, maintaining and harvesting. The idea was to conduct hands-on instruction in the garden, with classroom time as well using curricula that are in accordance with the Little Rock Public School District. Once pandemic restrictions end, that plan will be put into action. In the interim, Forst and the volunteers are exploring some options to share what they are doing with the students, besides just sending in fresh vegetables. They are considering Zoom sessions and YouTube videos with garden-to-table topics.

In addition to the pristine gardens, the juvenile detention center staff also has a chicken coop and rabbit hutch that the students help maintain along with the center staff. This fits right into that principle of learning how to nurture and care for other living things.

GARDEN HAS THRIVED

All gardeners know that a garden doesn't always go as planned. In this instance, the garden has thrived, but without the intended student contributions. The three Master Gardener volunteers and the extension agent are the only people allowed into the detention center garden for now, but with patience and time, that too will change.

These volunteers have big plans. They are seeking grants and other potential funding for a greenhouse, an irrigation system and outdoor kitchen. They currently pay out of their own pockets for most of the seeds and plants. One of the volunteers is a wiz at seed starting and grew most of the transplants herself at home.

They are dedicated to making a difference in the lives of these students, and ultimately their families. They hope to be able to invite the parents in and give them a tour and a taste-testing of what their children have grown — once they can get access.

They will take donations, from garden equipment to financial help. To help, contact the Pulaski County Extension Service office at (501) 340-6650 or email rforst@uaex.edu.

Read Janet Carson's blog at arkansasonline.com/planitjanet.

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