The first lessons an amateur gardener usually learns are the deep satisfaction of engaging with nature as well as the utter futility of it all. That’s largely because so much horticulture has evolved to become one of opposition to nature. We bring in plastic-bagged top soil from hundreds of miles away, dump it in a conveniently cleared patch, stock it with laboratory-designed super plants, and then feed them with fertilizers — while warding of weeds and bugs with chemicals.
Theodore Richards, of the Chicago Wisdom Project, says it shouldn’t be this way, and he wanted to teach children a more sustainable approach. “When you find those things that really make you feel alive, those are the opportunities for the most growth and learning to happen,” Richards says. The Project employs the ecological philosophy of permaculture, which includes a holistic approach to gardening, including the idea that humans are very much a part of nature. “We’re not thinking about nature as a place to go on the weekend, as something separate from ourselves,” Richards says. “We want to change that for young people. So the idea of cultivating the earth while cultivating human beings is sort of the metaphor.” So far the Project mentors about 50 at-risk kids at any given time from Chicago’s South Side using arts programs as well as gardening and farming.
The guiding concept behind permaculture is the notion of creating an entire ecology that’s sustainable and appropriate rather than one that’s at odds with its surroundings. It’s an intensive slow process, but one Richards says can be adapted for the backyard meddler, including even raised garden beds for city dwellers.