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June 16, 2005: One afternoon during my internship
at an alternative school for at-risk adolescents, I was thumbing
through a recent issue of a Teaching Tolerance magazine.
An article on therapeutic gardening intrigued me and I raced
to the vice-principal's office to share the article. She encouraged
my enthusiasm and showed me the way to a closet filled with
gardening tools and seeds. Apparently, a horticulture teacher
had initiated a garden, but no one had pursued it once she
left the position. Dissatisfied and frustrated with traditional
therapy and education, I needed to implement an alternative
solution. These students had no desire to sit in the confines
of a stuffy classroom and discuss their feelings. We were
interminably met with a stream of obscenities and airborne
Two weeks later on a morning early in March, we began our
"therapeutic" garden. Although the temperature hovered
around 32 degrees and snow flurries scattered the air, 12
students diligently raked and dug up the turf, preparing the
earth for the first planting season. Another adult leader
worked with some of the students to build a compost bin. The
students eagerly asked questions and sawed lumber.
Working with these students in the context of psychotherapy
groups, I had never seen such enthusiasm or attention to any
task. Subsequently, we worked in the garden, took a trip to
a nearby farm to milk cows, and cleaned up an abandoned lot
for a flower farm. During the farm trip, several inner-city
students expressed interest in working on a farm. These trips
also served to identify new vocational interests never previously
expressed simply because they lacked the environmental exposure.
The majority of the students described were diagnosed with
Attention Deficit/ Hyperactivity Disorder (ADD/ADHD). Infusing
environmental education (i.e., community gardening) into alternative
or general educational curriculums may be one effective intervention,
addressing cognitive and social deficits in children with
Why farming or gardening for ADD/ADHD? First, it involves
constant physical and manual labor. Movement boosts serotonin
levels, a neurotransmitter found to be deficient in those
with ADD/ADHD. Second, it is visual learning. I understand
concepts such as soil composition and nutrient cycles better
when I see it for myself, and the same goes for my students.
I have used soil test kits with student to determine the ph,
phosphorous, potassium and nitrogen levels from soil samples.
I split them into groups and they eagerly fill the tubes,
anxiously waiting for the results. How many of them would
comprehend this process from reading a textbook in a classroom
versus actually seeing it in an experiment from our garden?
Third, farming builds community and group cohesion. Students
readily help each other and staff members. It lends a sense
of accomplishment as we cook and eat food together fresh from
our garden, providing lessons in nutrition. Knut Hamsun’s
The Village of Segelfoss (1915) focuses on the disintegration
of communities, attributing the loss to factories and people
who have neglected traditional skills in favor of consumerism,
thus resulting in a severed relationship with the land.
Fourth, there is an interminable amount to learn about farming,
such as plant physiology, botany, seed structure, fruits and
vegetable cultivation, and soil chemistry. Fifth, it is one
positive way I can think of to channel addictive behaviors,
anger and depression. If movement does indeed boost serotonin
and one is so engaged in the work, learning new concepts may
be a likely antidote for depression and addiction. It is a
natural high that far surpasses a chemical high. If farming
ignites the hunger for knowledge in someone, an insatiable
craving to acquire knowledge may develop. Hangovers are banished
to the past; they consume too much energy and are a frivolous
waste of precious time, time that may be spent outside harvesting
vegetables, tilling the land, or hiking in the forest and
inhaling the scent of white pines. It is a cognitive-behavioral
form of therapy for drug and alcohol addiction, as studies
have found that exercise is more effective than traditional
psychotherapy in alleviating drug and alcohol problems. People
with drug and alcohol problems in traditional psychotherapy
programs report higher rates of relapses.
Farming may also be considered a cognitive or rational emotive
form of therapy as maladaptive thought processes may be restructured;
one is challenged on a daily basis. Learning concepts such
as soil science may increase self-esteem as one acquires knowledge
and gains confidence in his or her abilities, thus enhancing
self-efficacy. Farming also serves to help identify vocational
careers, perhaps as a farmer, horticulturalist, plant geneticist
or biologist. Furthermore, these are tangible results as opposed
to traditional psychotherapy where there is more of an emphasis
on cognitive results. Positive thoughts replace the spiral
downward of negative thoughts that often cause one to become
trapped in a centrifugal force, an overwhelming sensation
of drowning with no hope of resurfacing.
Sixth, maintaining an organic food diet improves health and
provides energy. By enhancing one’s diet, often a benefit
of farming and gardening, health invariably improves. In one
study, DHA, an omega-3 fatty acid found in green leafy vegetable,
walnuts and flaxseed oil, increased P300 brain waves, which
are often decreased or persistent in those with ADD/ADHD.
Another study revealed that approximately 40 percent of children
with ADHD had an omega-3 deficiency.
Farming may be analogous to the benefits of meditation: teaching
patience, the ability to focus on a task and prevention of
distracting thoughts. Farming, as a meditative activity, may
induce alpha waves, another possible deficit in those with
ADD/ADHD. Farming also teaches the Buddhist concept of mindfulness
as it creates a full awareness of living in the present moment,
as well as an outlet for channeling aggression and frustration.
Living on a farm has irrevocably changed my life; it is a
drastic reduction in the frenetic pace that most of society
lives. Because I am not bombarded by extraneous stimuli, the
silence allows time for contemplation. On highways, people
speed recklessly by, honk horns and shout expletives. Parking
lots are accidents waiting to happen and as a result, tempers
flare left and right. The congestion, noise, and pollution
are enough to easily provoke a nervous breakdown in any healthy
person. While living on a farm, my greatest days were watching
a cow meander in the road, holding up “traffic”,
perhaps a car or two. As the sun set, I took lengthy bike
rides past neighboring farms, inhaling the pungent scent of
cow manure, and watched baby lambs frolic in the pastures.
Finally, it is the lifestyle that is most appealing. Farming
demands excessive energy for the arduous, physical labor,
yet paradoxically it is relaxing. It is a return to an agrarian
past. Hands down, I'd choose picking blueberries any day over
sitting in a traffic jam, inhaling carbon dioxide fumes. Cooking
and eating butternut squash soup from your farm with the company
of friends is an ideal way to spend fall and winter evenings.
I find great enjoyment picking fresh arugula and radishes
from my garden for a spring salad and farm markets are an
opportunity to swap stories, produce, advice and build friendships
with local farmers.
At another alternative school, my coworker, Stephanie, and
I worked with four girls from a foster home designing and
building a farm stand to sell our produce. We initially designed
it on paper as a group, integrating geometric formulas such
as the Pythagorean theorem. Although geometry is typically
taught indoors, it can be taught on an interactive level and
experientially in such woodworking and carpentry projects.
As an interdisciplinary approach, environmental education
also involves other mathematical concepts: measurement, weights,
graphing, recording data, designing, and observational skills.
The students work together to formulate a solution instead
of struggling alone with pencil and paper. If students are
working as a group towards a tangible goal, it is likely to
generate enthusiasm. In addition, I have observed students
directly give each other support, encouragement and praise
during these endeavors. Students also conquer fears of learning;
one student admitted a fear of math and refused to measure
a piece of wood. We worked with her to read the tape measure
and she triumphantly smiled when she measured a piece on her
own, her eyes aglow with pride.
I spent the following year organically farming, designing
and maintaining a ¼ acre on a nearby farm, as well
as teaching organic farming and art to youth in the community.
One of our students, Megan*, helped me forage for the larvae
of the enemy, which this particular summer was the cucumber
beetle. She overturned the massive, prickly leaves and cried
out “larvae,” her blue eyes widening with excitement.
She crumpled the leaf, gleefully squashing the larvae together.
During the egg stage, she enjoyed folding the leaf over the
miniscule, golden eggs and listening to them pop, like the
popping of bubble-wrap packaging. While we checked the leaves,
we gently harvested zucchini, patty pan and yellow squash
from their vines. During their peak in mid-July, I harvested
between 200-250 pounds of squash on a weekly basis. We piled
them in large, straw baskets and lugged them to a cooler filled
with water, where we scrubbed the soil from their green-and-yellow
elongated bodies and separated them into different baskets
at the stand. Megan and I headed back out to the fields to
cultivate the weeds with hand hoes between rows, a tedious
job that must be done on a weekly basis or the weeds spread
As we hoed, I asked her about her home life. Earlier in the
summer, she told me that her parents divorced and she lived
with her mother.
“I’m going to try and live with my aunt here,”
she suddenly said.
“Because I don’t want to live with my mom, anymore.”
“Do you get along with her?”
“She drinks too much and I’m sick of it.”
I quietly paused for a moment before responding and continued
hacking away at a weed clinging to the soil.
“Have you tried talking to her about it, letting her
know that it bothers you?”
“Yeah, but she doesn’t listen. She just goes
out to bars and gets drunk.”
“Who picks her up?”
For the next hour, she disclosed to me, while hoeing, her
feelings about her mother’s alcoholism. The conversation
served to support my theory of “spontaneous” therapy,
particularly when it occurs in the context of nature, not
in an office. Students often discuss their personal lives
in the context of a garden, on a camping trip, hiking or canoeing
when it is on their terms; they feel comfortable and can relate
to someone they do not perceive as an authority figure.
In our agrarian past, labels such as ADD/ADHD did not exist
because we applied concepts. Society consisted of active and
interactive professions such as farming, blacksmithing, and
woodworkers. Students were encouraged to pursue such occupations
and they certainly did not stay isolated indoors, vacant eyes
staring into computer screens or television. Communities evolved
and supported one another during times of hardship, thus instilling
values such as loyalty, work ethics and cooperation. Admirably,
the Amish build community and family relationships. One finds
children and adults outside working together, maintaining
their homesteads. Indian tribes, such as the Iroquois, practiced
sustainable agriculture and lived in communally based extended
families. The psychological, social and physiological benefits
of agriculture for at-risk youth irrefutably need to be further
evaluated in studies and incorporated into our educational