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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 objects!
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
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 ADHD.
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
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 like wildfire.
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