A few years ago, I was attending an international Juice Plus convention in Phoenix, Arizona and I heard a presentation by an award-winning teacher from the Bronx who had revolutionized the lives of the kids in his classroom as well as their families by teaching them how to garden. Many had never seen live produce, let alone had had the chance to eat it. What became known as the Green Bronx Machine started a ripple effect which has now been felt around the world. The teacher’s name is Stephen Ritz, and hands down he is the most passionate educational presenter I have ever heard. His energy is boundless, he refuses to accept that things cannot be changed, and he has even lost close to 50 pounds since he started urban gardening in the New York City public schools. His battle cry is “Si, se puede,” which in Spanish literally means, “Yes, it can be done.” He had all 7,000 of us on our feet and hollering his battle cry.
What is it that he claims can be done? The areas known as “food deserts,” which are a component of urban blight in large cities can in fact be overturned. The result is healthier kids, better grades, healthier families, educational opportunities, business opportunities, and the chance to get a literal tiny taste of the pleasure Adam must have felt in the Garden.
Stephen makes indoor wall gardens, tears up streets in the Bronx to make raised bed gardens, and makes extensive use of the Tower Garden to power his Green Bronx Machine. He has even gotten Tower Gardens into the White House, has been commended by the Pope, has been the subject of several TV shows and interviews, and gives one of the best Ted Talks ever.
On the other coast of America in Los Angeles, Ron Finley heads up the Ron Finley Project. He shares the same passion as Stephen, with a slightly more artistic and philosophical approach. He says he has started what he calls a “horti-cultural revolution,” and has had particularly good success with gang members. He calls his kids “gangsta gardeners,” and they are bringing the revolution in a way that is providing food and building community.
Ron “envisions a world where gardening is gangsta, where cool kids know their nutrition, and where communities embrace the act of growing, knowing, and sharing the best of the earth’s fresh-grown food.” He plans to turn “food deserts into food forests,” garnering a number of positive spin offs in the process. Communities are built and healed when they come together to grow produce and work with the land and each other. Finley also sees gardening as an art form. He is not interested in telling people what they should plant. Instead, he recently said in an interview conducted by Dr. Caroline Leaf that he tells prospective gangsta gardeners “That plant is going to be purple and 12 feet tall. You are going to see it every day, so make sure it is something that you are going to enjoy.” He is a firm believer that you can have beauty and bounty in the same space.
Gardening is what we were made to do, and we have allowed ourselves to get disconnected from our original assignment: “to tend and keep” gardens. There’s a whole lot of healing in horticulture, and good stuff in gardens. Recently it was discovered that soil has substances in it that function as anti-depressants without all the side effects. It builds bodies, minds, and communities, and it’s an idea whose time has indeed come again.