Based on a 2016 Digital Measures impact report submitted by Lynn Long, Extension horticulturist and co-county leader for Wasco County. Michelle Sager, Master Gardener education program assistant, supported the project. Edited by Ann Marie Murphy.
A greenhouse, purchased many years ago by Northern Oregon Regional Correctional Facilities (NORCOR) teaching staff, languished empty and unused. In 2009, OSU Master Gardeners (MGs) in Wasco County began a partnership with the facility to share the greenhouse space originally intended to be used by student detainees as part of their science curriculum. NORCOR houses youth from Wasco, Hood River, Sherman, and Gilliam counties.
The MGs work with NORCOR youth to grow a large variety of plants—including annuals, herbs, perennials, vegetables, and ornamental grasses—for their fundraising spring plant sale. In exchange, they share their knowledge and passion for plants with the detained youth and a portion of the funds are used to operate the greenhouse.
“The people who attend the fair often tell Master Gardener volunteers that they intentionally buy our plants to support the NORCOR youth and show appreciation for our involvement with the NORCOR project.”*
NORCOR provides the greenhouse, water and power along with the staffing required to monitor the in-custody youth while in the greenhouse. Master Gardeners provide hands-on learning experiences for the students and NORCOR’s high school education staff provides academic support in the form of theoretical science curriculum.
For the MGs, preparation begins in the fall when they scour seed catalogs for an array of plant varieties that are anticipated to grow well in the region and are marketable at the spring plant sale. The seeds are ordered and the greenhouse is prepared for the spring growing season. In January, supervised greenhouse sessions with the youth begin.
Over the years, Master Gardeners recorded the number of seeds planted and planting dates and bloom times in order to produce marketable plants that are mostly sold at the one-day WCMGA Spring Plant Fair. From January to May, more than 250 different varieties—totaling approximately 6,500 plants—are grown in the NORCOR greenhouse.
NORCOR students are able to participate under close NORCOR staff supervision after they have maintained several days of exemplary behavior as rated by NORCOR staff. Youth are paired with a Master Gardener to perform a variety of greenhouse tasks. MG volunteers develop mini greenhouse sessions for the students. Because many of the youth are residents for fewer than six weeks, short lessons with easily grasped concepts are essential. At the end of their sessions, students discuss what they learned that day.
Working with MGs in the greenhouse is a positive environment where students learn about seeds, soils, plant identification, transplanting, irrigation techniques, fertilizer schedules, temperature control, and the ability to work together with adults and co-workers. All while gaining life-long work skills and experience.
Student tasks include:
- Filling pots with the soil mixture suitable for the plant;
- Seeding the pots;
- Dividing and transplanting the plants as they outgrow their containers;
- Rotating the plants so they receive sunlight and water evenly;
- Helping maintain and fertilize the plants; and
- Sweeping the floors before they leave, part of learning greenhouse sanitation management.
Students take insect traps and plant tissues to view in their classroom microscopes. This expands their hands-on knowledge by investigating plant life more thoroughly and ties the greenhouse project to their academic classroom training. Additionally, some of the youth are allowed to leave the facility to attend the Spring Plant Fair, participating by providing information to buyers, making sales and helping to transport the plants to vehicles.
A NORCOR high school teacher indicated three major benefits of the project:
- Students develop a sense of pride and accomplishment; the impact is greatest for long-term residents.
- They learn to collaborate and work with adults on a project. Teenagers working along with adults on a mutually beneficial project is an unique experience in a secure facility.
- The project provides students with an opportunity to learn and enjoy nature and discover a new interest outside of their academic courses; this helps with the transition to a ‘bigger world’ upon their release.
The participating NORCOR youth are asked to write thank you letters to the Master Gardeners. A memorable message from a young pregnant woman recognized that nurturing plants was like nurturing a child: they require observation and their needs to be provided for. “Without color” is how a student described her time at NORCOR, that is until she worked at the greenhouse and she began to see colors in her life once again.
The looks on the faces of the greenhouse kids is priceless when the MGs roll out approximately 6,500 plants and load them onto flatbed trucks and into vehicles. The colorful parade of healthy, beautiful flowers and plants is impressive. The youth are stunned when they see the results of their labors and take pride in their accomplishment. This is an important outcome because the majority of NORCOR kids have had few successes in their young lives. When the students complete their term at the facility, they are encouraged to take home a plant of their choice.
The greenhouse project encourages learning that goes beyond horticulture; however, because of confidentiality reasons, it is difficult to assess how the Master Gardener/NORCOR greenhouse project affects the lives of the youth after their release. Master Gardeners present certificates of accomplishment to students that worked in the greenhouse five times or more during the season. Those certificates have been used for job references. At least one young man living in the area worked for a local agriculture business after his release, putting the greenhouse program knowledge and skills to work.
Though challenging, the MGs also consider this project educational for themselves. The Master Gardeners increase their knowledge of greenhouse management and develop techniques to ensure the health of the plants. The project is an excellent, practical, hands-on teaching experience and it is an opportunity to put their Master Gardener training into practice.
The project received national attention when it took third place in the International Master Gardener’s Association Search for Excellence Program. Everyone involved in the greenhouse project shares a sense of accomplishment!
“It is a win-win-win project and could be modified to be used in other institutions and locations.”*
* Source: “Wasco County Master Gardener’s NORCOR and Spring Fair Project,” posted June 19, 2017.