It’s a Tuesday morning and Julian, 17, is at his favorite class: horticulture. Inside a greenhouse near Burlington County’s Smithville Mansion, he carefully transplants rosemary from a small container into a larger decorative pot.
“This is another one of those things that’s teaching me patience,” says Julian, who, until two months ago, had never sowed an herb, or any plant, in his life. “I’ve got to be careful or I’ll rip the roots.”
Julian is a resident within the New Jersey Juvenile Justice Commission (JJC) — the agency responsible for the care, custody, and rehabilitation of juvenile offenders. With JJC, he’s getting his first taste of gardening. And he likes it, a lot.
“I’ve never paid attention to the outdoors until this. But this place gives you peace of mind,” says Julian of the greenhouse. “It’s quiet here, a space where I can think. And I love working with my hands.”
As he wiggles the woody green herb out of its container, an evergreen-like fragrance perfumes the air. It’s pleasant compared with the aerosol odor clouding the front door.
Just outside, 17-year-old Raquan is transforming terra cotta pots into works of art, using red and yellow spray paint. He wears a blue sweater and jeans, the JJC uniform, with a black headband that keeps his dreadlocks from the line of fire.
“They give different tasks to different residents. I draw, I paint. I’m an artist,” says Raquan confidently.
His horticulture teacher, Keith Faust, compliments Raquan on the pots’ textured pattern.
It’s mid-February, but Faust, sporting a red T-shirt and shorts, has been hands-deep in summer all winter-long, tending tomato plants with his students. Soon, they’ll head to the Philadelphia Flower Show. This year marks JJC’s 13th year competing in the show, a rare opportunity for a group of juvenile offenders. While excited, most struggle to imagine what the show is.
“A lot of these kids are from the inner city, where they didn’t even have a balcony, let alone a yard,” says Faust. “I can explain to them what it’s like to walk into this football-field-size setting that bombards you with plants, but you can’t really understand unless you go.”
Next week, Faust’s students will get that chance.
JJC residents come from all over, remanded for crimes that run the gamut. Along with a core curriculum, they enroll in vocational programs, like audiovisual technology, culinary arts, and horticulture.
The horticulture students grow and tend to thousands of plants; some become part of Flower Show designs, others are sold to the public or used in community projects.
There are currently 30 horticulture students — ranging from 15 to 18 years old — pulling together this year’s entry. They’re competing in the “Balcony” category, designing a 10-by-6-foot space that conveys a “balcony overlooking a festival.”
Faust and fellow horticulture teacher Bryan Rohrer settled on “La Tomatina,” a nod to the famous Spanish tomato-throwing festival. (It’s on Faust’s bucket list.)
They hope to create a “sun-kissed balcony in the town of Buñol,” with private seats surrounded by herbs, peppers, and tomato plants that produce fruit for the fight and to eat.
It’s a romantic scene that Faust knows most students will never experience. But after countless reprimands for snowball fights, the festival is appealing.
“It sounded like a free expression to unabashedly play, knowing you’re going to get hit and covered in tomato juice,” says Faust.
The students have been cultivating plants for the exhibit since fall, working in small groups of four. For many, this was the first time they plunged hands into soil.
“A lot of times I have to start off just by teaching them that it’s OK to get dirty,” says Faust.
In October, they sowed seeds for tomatoes, like Cherry Cascades and Red Robins, alongside skinny Santaka chilies and stout Cajun Belle peppers. In November, pots were filled with marigold, biden, and other flowers that bloom in colors of the Spanish flag. By December, students were repotting tomatoes and learning to propagate herbs.
“My favorite job is cuttings — I love how you can make something out of nothing,” says Julian as he clips a branch of rosemary to propagate. “I can make eight plants with a single one. It’s like recycling, but for plants.”
Last month, students learned to build raised wooden beds to hold many of the plants in the Flower Show exhibit. Building furniture is 16-year-old Bryan’s favorite part of class.
“I never knew how to do nothing like this before, and now I’m making stools and learning skills I can make money with. This one I’m really proud of,” he says, pointing to an Adirondack chair.
In between show prep, students learn about irrigation systems, container planting, pruning, spacing, and vegetable gardening, along with life skills, like time management and teamwork. During warmer seasons, a plot outside the greenhouse flourishes with produce like zucchini and watermelon. Some of it makes its way back to the culinary teacher for a “seed to soup” lesson.
“To see a kid from Newark digging in the dirt, as someone from Newark, it’s amazing,” says Tremaine Harrison, JJC’s director of education, noting Newark’s reputation as a “concrete jungle.” “Where a lot of these kids come from, there’s sirens ringing all night long. You never get a tranquil setting like this. You have to have peace within in order to push peace out."
Peace — it was a word used by all three students Tuesday morning.
“It’s calming here, a place to think,” says Raquan. “I’m learning skills that open me up to new outlets — whether I use them for coping or for a future career."
“All of the plants remind you of wilderness, so people open up here,” Julian adds. “I’m getting to know people I’ve never talked to before, learning what we have in common. Often we’re coming from similar environments.”
The students are quick to point out that this is unusual. Whether in their regular classes, or at their community home, most keep to themselves. Faust says he hears about students quarreling on campus, but it’s rare to see inside his greenhouse. The “peace” allows students to let down their guard.
As the Flower Show opens Saturday, the students will experience something most don’t: attending the nation’s largest flower show, without the crowds.
As a competitor, JCC gets daily passes to upkeep its exhibit. Early at 6 a.m., students will be shuttled to the Convention Center to check in on their display and tour the show.
“It creates the ability for them to see a world they’ve never experienced before — to not only walk through massive floral exhibits, but to see landscapes from countries across the globe,” says Faust.
While hoping for a blue ribbon, Faust says that the real win is the experience.
If they do pull off a win, it won’t be JJC’s first. Over the years, JJC has earned two blue ribbons, and plenty more seconds and thirds.
“I love to see our kids compete on a national level, to show them what they can do,” says Harrison, “that you can achieve great things no matter what your circumstances are.”