Spooky. Scary. Crumbling. Haunted. Full of bad, dangerous kids. When you hear “Stonewall Jackson Training School” are these the images that come to mind? Yeah, me, too! But since I live across the railroad track from it, my curiosity got the better of me. I signed up to help in their gardens. That way, I could see what’s in that mysterious place.
So once a week we go to the school where you will meet an employee in a golf cart who will take you through the two locked gates to the greenhouse. The kids and their guards are waiting for you. Everybody is nice, respectful but a little reserved.
Each young man has his own raised bed. They are growing vegetables to be used in the facility’s kitchen or to be sold. Part of our job is to teach them about tilling the soil, planting seeds at the proper depth, watering and weeding. We do lots of weeding! We tell them and show them the "whys" and "hows" of trellising or caging the vegetables. When it’s time to harvest, we show them how to determine if the veggie is ready and the proper way to detach it from its stem.
Sometimes, we will either bring cooking utensils and equipment with us or make a dish out of their produce at home and bring it in. Kids who tell us that they don’t eat vegetables find out that they can be delicious after all! It is all about how they are prepared.
Sam is the aquaponics guru and he is there part of the time we are. He’s building a business on teaching others around the USA about how to set up and run a system of soil-less growing. Bill and I sat through a lesson that Sam gave the boys on doing proper analyzation of the water’s toxicity for the fish. The tilapia fish are the key. If they receive too much food, they excrete too much waste which raises the ammonia level in the water. Water sampling must be done every morning to determine how much food they will receive to make the water that is sent to the plants the most optimum it can be. Likewise, we don’t want it to be too alkaline. It is a sensitive and ever-changing game with Mother Nature.
Mostly they grow lettuce for the kitchen with the aquaoponic tubes. If there is space, they root cuttings from other plants. Then there are four other tables that plants in pots can be set in to also use this water.
Sam is a very knowledgeable and interesting man. Besides his voluminous knowledge of hydroponics, one of his other strengths is all things vegetable. Even we Master Gardeners(SM) have been learning things from him!
Working here in the greenhouse and raised beds is a privilege for these young men. They have to earn their way to this point and can be kicked out for not following the rules. Most of them will be released in a short time to enter the real world. They have the opportunity to learn skills here that can help them land a job once out. Hopefully, they will have learned from their mistakes that put them here in the first place. We, Master Gardeners, have tried to gently, positively influence them. There are times you can really feel their appreciation for being treated decently and with respect. We want them to know that their life is not over, that they can still be respected and contributing members of society.
Feed the vegetables and they grow. Feed the boys’ brains and they grow. Prune them both to produce good fruit. This is our dual purpose.
Article and Images by Linda C. Master Gardener Volunteer