Kale, Not Jail

“There goes the syllabus!” I yelled as a gust of wind blew our newly printed class schedule off the dashboard and onto the open road. After three cars had rolled over it, I got out of the truck, peeled the syllabus off the pavement, and showed my friend Kim the now barely legible document: Introduction to Organi Garde, Wha Compost?, and Savi Seeds.  This was not an auspicious beginning for the first day of our new gardening project at the Juvenile Hall. After unsuccessfully trying to wipe the tire marks off of our schedule, I asked Kim, “Do you think this is a sign?”

“To turn around?” she said as the high barbed wire fence that surrounded the juvenile hall loomed into view.

When we told most people about our idea to start an organic garden for teens on probation, most of them thought we were nuts. “You’re going to arm those teenagers with spades and shovels?” was the usual response we received when we told friends and family about our great idea. My Mom told my sister that she was concerned. “When is Jill going to get a real job? Now, she wants to plant flowers with criminals.”

The idea for the garden came from a documentary about a successful organic gardening program at a Los Angeles Detention Center. After viewing the film, I felt inspired. What better place to bring nature and the healing power of plants than into the criminal justice system? I contacted our local juvenile hall and felt excited and nervous when they said yes to a garden. I asked my best friend Kim to join me and two interviews and two FBI checks later, we found ourselves the co-directors of a new gardening program at La Villa Esperanza. Located on the grounds of the Santa Barbara Juvenile Hall, La Villa was a “last chance” high school for kids on probation. Most of the students there were in gangs. All of them had been kicked out of other schools. La Villa was their last stop before they were shipped off to Boot Camp, Placement, or even worse, the California Youth Authority.

Now, here we were, on the first day of class, feeing more nervous than we thought we would. Kim and I were avid gardeners who met though our work at an organic farm, but we had never worked with “at risk youth.”

“I hope teenagers on probation even like gardening.” I said.

“I didn’t when I was their age. “Did you?” Kim asked.

“No, I thought only old people did it. Wait, are they going to think that we’re old?” Our worrying was interrupted by a shrill bell. As we peered through the fence, about 20 teens, some in green jumpsuits filed out of a trailer and stood in line with their hands behind their backs. Those without jumpsuits wore giant pants. All of them wore the whitest athletic shoes I had ever seen.

“Our future students await.” Kim tried to sound enthusiastic. Suddenly, with appalling clarity I noticed the extreme differences between us and them. Our floppy sun hats, their greased back hair. Our sparkly beaded earrings, their tattoos and black lipstick. Our straw baskets of seeds and organic fruit, their Red Hot Cheetos and Doritos wrappers strewn on the ground. We smelled like lavender and yang ylang essential oils… we would soon find out what they smelled like.

“They’re going to think we’re hippies.” I whispered as we walked toward our new students… and of course, they did.

The first few weeks of gardening class were hell.  But, nothing was as bad as that very first day. The director of the school, introduced us, then said, “I’ll leave you all to get acquainted. But, I’m very close by and can hear everything.”

There wasn’t much to hear. After she left, all eight students gazed at us with slack faces. Two slowly nodded their heads repeatedly, others openly ignored us. One girl smiled. Time slowed as we explained who we were and why we were there. We held up our basket of heirloom seeds and asked, “Have any of you ever gardened before?”

“I have.” The young girl who smiled at us said. “My whole family does landscaping and I hate it.” With that comment, our project, which ultimately became known as Kale, Not Jail was born.

For the first month of classes, the kids ignored us, most of them cordially so. They looked bored. Long, drawn out, and very loud yawning was common. But, they ate all of the organic apples and persimmons we brought. If they talked to us, it was to say things like, “Why are you coming here? Do you get paid? You don’t?! Well, then you’re stupid. Why would you come to this dump for free?”

Those happened to be the very same questions that Kim and I had been asking ourselves. Our classes weren’t fun. It was hard to get the students to even come into the garden. Most of them refused to touch the soil. They thought it was “disgusting” and would tie plastic bags over their white shoes before they left the safety of the sidewalk. Worms were “nasty,” plants were “boring,” being in the sun was “tiring,” and digging was “too hard.” But, once seeds started sprouting, the magic and fun began.

Except for some herbs, flowers, and a few kale plants, nothing grew well. In fact, for that first year, Kale, Not Jail was a terrible garden. But, those plants hardy enough to survive, didn’t just grow, they roamed. Gigantic lavender bushes. Colossal mint geranium. Massive rosemary. Towering marigolds. Pungent sage. Colonies of lemon balm. Ubiquitous epazote… and one stately butterfly bush.

Anything edible was eaten and enjoyed, not by us, but by the various local critters that came at night to devour all of our hard work. It was an 24 hour all-you-can-eat organic buffet. Sweet corn neatly stripped off to the very last kernel, the empty cob left standing bare for us to see in the morning. Stands of thriving pepper plants demolished in one night. Thirty-six heirloom tomato plants, whose botanical ancestors had survived hundreds of years of hardship, gone in just two weeks. After our dwarf citrus was decapitated, we decided we needed to fence the place in. With the invaluable help of organic gardener and plant expert Oscar Carmona and vast amounts of chicken wire, above and below ground, we cordoned off our growing area so thoroughly it resembled a juvenile hall for plants. Oscar became a friend to the project. He had a natural rapport with the kids and was amazing with the plants.

But, even with all of our crop failures, there were still successes in the garden. Many of our students grew to love plants, especially those who told us they knew the seeds they planted wouldn’t grow because everything they did turned out badly. It was rewarding to see these same teenagers look at their new seedlings with wonder and exclaim, “It worked!” Many of our students watered the garden for extra credit during breaks and lunch because it made them feel peaceful. Rival gang members worked together on creative gopher control. A lot of our students asked to take their plants home with them after they left the program. One teen cornered me in the garden shed after class one day, shut the door, and said he wanted to talk to me in private. His face came close to mine as he whispered (so his friends wouldn’t hear), “Is it true there are flowers that bloom in the night? Really?! Can you get me some?”

There were a few uncomfortable situations over the four and a half years that we ran Kale, Not Jail. One young woman despised us on sight and told us that she wanted to kick our asses. We never know why, she just did. Others would ask us to sell them pot because they knew we were hippies. A few of our favorite students were arrested and one ended up in prison. But, after those first excruciating months, most of our experiences were rewarding.

On hot afternoons, students would recline in the shade under the butterfly bush and sip lemon balm or other herbal teas from plants they had grown. In the garden, they felt free to open up and talk about their lives and often, it wasn’t very pretty. Many of their parents were missing, in jail, on the run, or on posters, the kind you used to see at the post office.

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Permaculture came to the garden in the second year. Wesley Roe of the Santa Barbara Permaculture Network and architect Jim Bell visited the site. Their presence and the arrival of Permaculture Design helped us craft a garden that wasn’t dependent on expensive inputs. Wes and Jim showed up every week lugging scavenged materials and touting Permaculture principles which we and the students turned into mini-greenhouses, cold frames, berms, swales, compost piles, and intriguing conversations. They helped us put in the beginnings of a food forest. Wes taught us that everything onsite could be cycled through the system and that Permaculture can be applied to any situation. He worked with the kids individually, helping them see how they could use Permaculture design in their daily lives.

Applying Permaculture Design to Kale, Not Jail helped us see why we were struggling in some areas. We learned that a lot of our challenges were linked to sectors, outside influences over which we had no control. These included our location on a South-facing sloping hill with lots of erosion gullies. We were surrounded by a Eucalyptus patch, acres of open grassland, and a gravel road above. We couldn’t remove these sectors, but once identified, could design to compensate for and respond to their presence.

Learning about the Permaculture Ethics of Earth Care, People Care, and Fair Share or Share the Surplus was an affirmation of our efforts with the students and in the garden. And although most of our surplus was shared with the wildlife, Permaculture helped us see that we didn’t have a wildlife problem, we actually suffered from a lack of predators.

Kale, Not Jail was chosen to be part of Larry Santoyo’s Pattern Course. In preparation for the visit, students worked with us on a Site Analysis which showed how many hidden resources we had. Nervous that our bedraggled and fenced in garden would look terrible next to the beautiful home and estate gardens that were also part of the Course, we were thrilled when Larry proclaimed Kale, Not Jail an excellent example of Permaculture Design.

Applying Permaculture helped us create a more fertile and productive project. We grew a diversity of herbs, flowers and some hardy vegetables and fruit, including a freshly picked watermelon that rolled under the fence and down the hill. Accompanied by the encouraging shouts of students who swore it was trying to escape, it cracked open on the road below, but still tasted delicious.

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Although we never harvested as many vegetables as we wanted, Kale Not Jail was abundant in other things: feelings, laughter, sharing, and listening. The peace that comes when a teenager has been heard. When the story they’re afraid to tell is told and received by someone else without judgement, cringing, or advice.

We were the directors of Kale, Not Jail  for four and a half wonderful years. At that time, we didn’t know enough about grants and other funding methods that could have kept the program viable. Oscar Carmona took over from us and keep the program going for a couple more years.

I recently visited the garden site. All that remains are a few hardy perennials, the rosemary, epazote, and a couple of weedy flowers. Looking around, I realized that Kale, Not Jail had been a garden perfect for its place, where loving care and attention had made something beautiful grow. We had worked with what we had: A group of maligned teenagers. A patch of barren ground. A few hours a week. A bunch of rickety garden tools. Some donated seeds and very little money. With that, we taught our students to utilize what they had. We showed them that plants that haven’t had a good start in life, that are under-watered, neglected, or abused, can usually make a comeback when they are tended to. We shared with them the satisfaction that comes when your attention veers away from yourself and instead is focused on caring for something or someone else.

Standing there on that weed-covered hillside, I realized that it was okay that we hadn’t been successful in growing vegetables. Our crop had been hope. Our yield had been possibility. Our fertilizer was attention. We grew love.

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