Teaching gardening to develop the mental and physical health of incarcerated youth


Sonora, CA – The Mother Lode Regional Juvenile Detention Center in Sonora, near Wards Ferry Road, uses gardening as a mental and physical health tool, and now the young inmates have their own ideas for a new project.

“It’s a whole new thing for me. I’ve never thought about gardening or where our food and products come from. It’s really interesting to see all the bugs on the food,” said a young woman.

UC Cooperative Extension 4-H Youth Development Advisor for Tuolumne County, JoLynn Miller, and volunteers began visiting the facility weekly in 2017 to help young inmates develop a garden. Miller detailed, “When I started it was really to give these young people an opportunity to connect with anything that gives them a spark that they can put their minds and focus on. So they have a passion they can pursue to keep them busy and out of trouble.

The inmate says the garden also helps calm her down when she gets anxious. In 2018, the incarcerated youngster actually helped secure a grant from Tuolumne County Farms (FOTC) to add two more wooden garden boxes, for a total of four, allowing for more planting.

“I look forward to the new plants they bring in every week, like ghost peppers, and once they brought in garlic,” the inmate said. “We also have carrots, basil, mint, cabbage and lettuce. So it’s kind of like a little surprise.

When Clarke Broadcasting visited during gardening time, the youngsters were enthusiastically checking their carrots. One of the reasons why Jim Bliss, former pastor and volunteer with Master Gardner, says he gives of his time.

“I can interact with them on a very different level because I have no expectations of them, they have no expectations of me, and I’m not selling anything but carrots, and you can see how dot the carrots went from watching them all pull them out of the garden,” Bliss shared, adding, “I think what people need is an honest relationship with another person. Then you just teach by being there. Something the young woman acknowledged: “People don’t have to volunteer and spend their days here, but they choose to because we love and respect it.

The big thing, Bliss noted, is showcasing the teenage work ethic. “I had kids digging a two foot hole looking for leaks because we took out all the sprinklers and replaced it with drip to conserve water. So they learn about conservation, hard work, and how a seed can grow into something simply amazing. He continued, “I get a big kick from people who experience joy, and there’s a lot of joy in a garden.”

Growing up is only part of the lesson; eating is another, Miller said, explaining, “They take all the things they grow and they learn to cook with it. They make meals out of it. They learn that they can be almost self-sufficient. They know they can grow something from a seed, then cook it and eat it. It’s a really cool cycle.

Last year, the youngsters had another idea, writing and winning another FOTC grant to build a new pollinator and meditation garden in another area of ​​the facility, currently just a cement area and of grass. The young girl drew the plans for the garden. Miller described it like this: “We’re going to put flowering plants for pollinators, butterflies, bees, things like that. Next, we’re going to set up a water feature and use it as a place for meditation, so the social workers and counselors who work here can even use it when working with children to teach them how to calm down. Water has a very strong soothing presence.

This grant was also granted, but there is a catch. As Miller explained, “We thought a lamp post near where we wanted to place the pond had an electrical outlet, but it doesn’t. The grant money is already used to buy other parts of the pond, so we are looking for an electrician. She offered, “Maybe we could buy the supplies if they could give us the time and help us do it. We would really appreciate it. Anyone interested in volunteering as an electrician can contact Miller at [email protected] or 209-533-5686.

Bliss can attest to the joy of giving, recounting a recent encounter he had with an ex-con: “For about three weeks, one of the young men came to see his patrol just as we were in the garden. He said, “I wish I was there, but I’m glad to be free.” I think that’s the whole point: people have to have a reason to improve their lives.


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