A recent visit to the garden at the Berks County Campus proves to be an exciting nature lesson and a feel for how gardening is truly therapeutic for the children who are lucky enough to participate in the project. Clinician Fred Indenbaum proudly displayed the 2,200 square foot garden. The 20 beds contained a variety of crops. Root vegetables like beets, potatoes, and carrots will produce a fall harvest, along with leafy greens, such as, spinach and lettuce.  Tomatoes, spinach, green beans, and herbs are still plentiful. Decorative gourds and pumpkins are bountiful, as are huge sunflowers and cabbages. There is much work to be done now that the larger student body has returned, and Fred is very busy supervising the garden, the worms in the vermicomposting bins, and planning for next spring.


Fred plans big, and he usually attracts donors to fund his new projects. This year, he would like to build a greenhouse, containing a water garden with plants and fish and grow lights that would allow the children to garden year round. “This fall we will be very busy clearing the garden beds, planting a cover crop, collecting and mulching leaves, beautifying the beds in front of the school, and building a border around the garden.  We also need to clean out our birdhouse to make room for next year’s residents,” Fred explains.


The Therapeutic Effect

Fred is producing some incredible therapeutic effects through the garden and vermicomposting projects. He works with kids from grades 1-12, in all three levels of the Berks Partial Hospitalization program. “I design group activities to address our common themes – learning to respect all living things and living responsibly.”


For example, Fred takes the children out to the garden to observe bees. Some children are afraid that bees will sting them. Fred observes that the bees are very busy working to collect food for their hive. They have no reason to sting unless the children tried to harm them. “The garden is not a metaphor for life,” Fred explains, “It is life. The children are learning to respect others, bees and human beings, so they can live more peacefully, more harmoniously.”


According to Fred, there are many life lessons for the children to learn in the garden. He tells the children that the plants are providing them with gifts, and that they should always be thankful for these gifts. “I suggest that when they harvest vegetables, they give thanks for what the plants willingly given them.” Fred continues, “I relate garden gifts to their parents, who care for them and willingly give them what they need.  Gratitude, love, and respect are important lessons.”


Many of these children have been abused, mistreated, or neglected to the point that they do not respect others. Fred starts fresh with them, helping the children learn to love and respect plants and then extend those feelings to the people in their lives. He encourages them to care for the plants and learn to understand them. He teaches the kids that they can communicate with all living things – plants, pets, people. Communicating across different languages requires greater effort. “We should embrace, not dismiss others just because they speak or look different from us.  The garden teaches us diversity with its many textures, colors, and sizes,” Fred explains. “All of the plants are different, and they need to be, because they all contribute to the health of the garden community.”


Many of the children with whom Fred works are low functioning, and many have significant anger management issues. He has found that having an angry child water the garden can be very calming and healing. He also tells them that, without water the plants will die.  “The sound of water is very soothing.  It sparkles in the light.  It pulses in their hands.  The kids also take this task (watering) very seriously.  The plants are counting on them.  The child’s job is important, which makes the child important.”


Seeds are another learning tool for Fred to teach the children about life and responsibility. “Seeds are invigorating because they bring forth life,” Fred says enthusiastically. “I tell the children that the mother plant protects her babies by putting them inside a hard shell called a seed.  The babies are inside the seed. The children become more protective of the seeds as soon as they understand that they are holding babies that need gentle care.” He adds that seeds and plants do not look or talk like us, but we are all living things and have much in common.


The Worms

The Berks County Campus now has four bins of red worms.  Each bin is 8ft long, 4ft wide, and 1ft deep.  Each contains 32 pounds of worms, which will reproduce to 64 pounds to fit their new home.  The worms are very industrious, eating half their weight every day.  The children collect their food waste – compostable tableware and uneaten food – and deliver it to a pulper that chops it.  The kids feed this mixture to the worms and provide water as needed.  The worms turn this mixture into compost every few months. Fred explains that the worms move to new “food” once they have digested one section of the bin. Not only do the worms produce rich compost for the garden, but they have also reduced the school’s waste by 80%, saving the program approximately $4,000 annually in trash hauling costs.


“These bins contribute to the community,” Fred explains. “They save landfill space, which is beneficial for the environment and helps reduce local taxes related to trash pickup. The children are very proud of their efforts and many have adopted recycling into their home lives.”


Because President Obama is promoting green schools, Fred and the children are eager to share their success with him. They are inviting their local congressional representative to visit the school, learn about the Garden Program, and deliver an invitation to the President from the children. With the help of the art teacher, the children completed a 10ft X 6ft painting of the President, which they intend to give him.


Fred’s work is driven and focused and wonderful for the children. They are learning to love and respect nature and to see how all living things are interconnected in a larger community of life.  Most importantly, however, the kids are healing the wounds that limit their success and happiness.