CLEVELAND, Tenn. — Growing vegetables was part of Juvenile Judge Daniel Swafford’s childhood. He learned work and commitment in his family’s garden, and he now wants to plant those values in troubled youth.
The judge is creating a community garden behind the Bradley County Juvenile Center on Johnson Boulevard where juvenile offenders can raise beans and squash to fulfill their community service obligations. He believes it’s the first in the state.
“There is a very elemental, primal lesson to be learned from the planting, nurturing and eventual harvesting of a garden,” Judge Swafford said. “I’m afraid that many of these young people have never been exposed to that.”
The garden will be planted on an acre plot. A dozen raised beds of fresh soil will be placed on the rocky ground to produce fruits and vegetables.
The 300 juveniles sentenced to community service in Bradley County may work in the garden or participate in other programs such as litter collection.
Juvenile Center Director Chip Bryant said the community service program aims to “find activities for these children that will shape their behavior in the direction of becoming a contributing citizen.”
Nathan Ross, the juvenile community service coordinator, said the garden will be a learning opportunity.
“(The children) are going to be in the planning process, thinking about how many inches or feet do I need to plant this plant from this one to get it to grow properly,” he said. “They can grow with the garden because it gets the mind working.”
Farmers such as Bob Ross are pitching in to help the junior green thumbs, who are 13 to 18 years old.
Mr. Ross used his background in agronomy to test the soil, and he may teach some lessons. He said the gardening project could connect a new generation to agriculture.
“Computers brought in video games, and a lot of children are staying inside,” Mr. Ross said. “There is something about planting a seed and watching it produce whatever you want it to produce. It connects you with nature.”
Juvenile offenders will have a personal connection with their produce. They will eat the vegetables after a dietitian approves a menu.
That may cost more than the 88 cents apiece the juvenile center now pays for meals, but Mr. Bryant said there’s a benefit.
“The value of the children getting to eat what comes out of the garden is priceless,” Mr. Bryant said.
He said the garden project will largely be funded by donations and is already creating community buzz.
“There is so much emphasis nowadays on getting back to the basics, ecology and the environment,” Mr. Bryant said. “We feel like if we can put these troubled youth to making a garden, as old-timers used to say, there will be vast benefits.”