Starting over from the beginning, even the alphabet

Every winter we read SEEDFOLKS, by Paul Fleischman, about a fictitious urban community garden in Ohio.  Each chapter is written through the eyes of a different gardener.  The voices are filled with nails on a chalk board ethnic stereotypes but with a generous and eager energy to make their individual garden from a deserted dumpy block in a crummy forgotten neighborhood.  It’s an easy read and the men like it as they get to read aloud and the chapters are short.  This book always gets us excited to start thinking about our gardens sleeping under the snow, our seed order, the strawberries…  But…

Today I had only four men in the class, one English speaking, three Spanish. Without pride, I admit that my Spanish is none existent.  The men usually translate for one another throughout class but after reading a couple of chapters today it became clear this year we had to take a different course.  We put the books down and I grabbed a big pile of paper from the recycle bin, a roll of tape and a year’s worth of Organic Gardening Magazine.  Without scissors I ripped pages with gorgeous pictures of tomatoes, cabbage, peonies and herbs and all kinds of colorful plants and began to tape them to the paper.  I handed the paper to one  inmate and asked him to write what it was.  He said I don’t know how to spell tomato.  I handed him the dictionary and asked him to look it up.  He then said he’d never used a dictionary.  I sat down with him and we looked it up together.  He first had to decide where “t” came in the alphabet.  After successfully writing tomato we handed it to the next student who them wrote the Spanish equivalent tomate.  By the end of class we had destroyed all the magazines, laughed as we all tried our pronunciations and the class had gone from arduous and thwarted to gloriously energetic and refreshingly positive.

We are now going to start our own dictionary filled with colorful clippings and new words for all, essentially creating our own “community garden”ing book.

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Look back at 2013

IMG_8257Each year we look back and tally up some statistics about the year in the Emerald Necklace Conservancy Maintenance Collaborative.   Foundations and donors as well as the Department of Corrections like to know who learned what and what the men felt about that learning.


In 2013 we had 31 men go through the program as members of the Emerald Necklace work crew.  Each man took between 1 and 25 classes with me, but most took 7 classes over a 3 month rotation.  18 of those men earned a Certificate of Horticulture and were given a resume to help them translate their experience on the crew and in the classroom.


I asked the men questions too about what they liked about the class and what they learned and if they knew to parley their experience into any field they took up upon release.

IMG_8781When I asked them what they thought of the program they replied:

“A lot of people go by and say thank you – they appreciate our work.”

“I feel that it is therapeutic getting in touch with nature and it therefore inspires me to do something for the community, for others, making people happy.”

“I now see waste in paper, food, etc.  We take so much for granted.”

“Everything is going well.  I only used to buy flowers for my girl, now I know so much more about those flowers.”

IMG_8053When asked why foundations might give to such a program they replied:

“Because we are humans and anyone can learn from their mistakes.”

“I’d like to learn skills for a better job.”

“We are learning!”

I asked about skills they had learned:

“Growing seeds.”

“Raking leaves into a vacuum which crumbles them and then puts them around trees as leaf mulch.”

“I used to pick up my kids from school and go to the HILO and get old bread to feed the ducks in Jamaica Pond.  I won’t do that again!”

“We need to keep the parks clean so people will visit.”

“This park is part of us.”

“Videos and books helped us learn about soil and life.”

“I can work in a garden and make it better looking.”

Finally, I asked what they planned to do next upon release and how they thought their experience on the crew would help them in whatever they decided to do.

“I am going into trucking but this class gave me an understanding of trees and plants, before, I did not care about them.  I learned about team work and how to be in a group.”

“I learned about how to respect, protect and to keep clean the parks. I learned about team work and to delegate and take initiative.  We did things before we were told because we knew it would make it better.”

“I am going into the drywall business.  I learned that if you don’t work hard you don’t get anything done.  It helps me sleep well at night because we work hard.  I understand now about working hard.  I am going to build a garden at my Mom’s house.”

“I did not want to come onto the crew.  I wanted to work in the kitchen because I was hungry.  I want a job that makes me happy.  I don’t mind the physical work.”

IMG_6247Onto 2014.