It's shortly before noon on a hot August Tuesday and three teens armed with shovels, pitchforks and a wheelbarrow are toiling in the sun between raised wooden planters and stacks of rubber tires, slowly spreading a dark brown mulch that smells unmistakably of chocolate.
Marianna Ballou, a Smith College student supervising the work, explains that the mulch is actually made of the discarded husks of cacao beans recovered from a Cambridge chocolate maker, and aside from making the community garden off Webster Street smell strangely delicious, it would help keep down weeds that could eventually spread to the nearby planter beds.
It was just one of the many lessons Ballou had shared with the teens in the last three weeks as she led the first teen-education program run by Bountiful Brookline, a local umbrella organization that coordinates urban farming efforts and supports sustainable consumption in Brookline. Ballou's program, called Teens Grow Food, is modeled after similar agricultural education programs offered in Boston, Somerville and, increasingly, cities throughout the country.
"They're looking at what's growing in Bookline, how food's being grown in Brookline," said Cathy Neal, the founder of Bountiful Brookline. "It's not just about working in the garden all day."
The three teens in Brookline's pilot program met for three hours, three mornings a week for four weeks in July and August. In addition to the time spent working in the Brookline Community Foundation's small vegetable garden, which Bountiful Brookline maintains, Ballou and the teens spent much the last three weeks touring other farms and gardens in Brookline, cooking meals from the vegetables they'd grown and holding workshops on topics ranging from health and homelessness to the culture of food.
"We emphasized educating our teens about how to be good farmers in the city," Ballou said. "We were trying to show them creative ways of gardening when you're living in an urban area, but we also wanted to give them an idea of why it's important."
Much of the program involved practical instructions on how to grow food in compact, difficult-to-tend spaces. Ballou taught the teens to use milk and baking soda to combat the powdery mildew that was attacking their squashes and cucumbers, and showed them how they could make their tomato plants grow higher, and therefore produce more fruit, if they stacked tires filled with soil around the plant as it grows. And of course, she showed how discarded cacao husks could be used as mulch.
Over the three weeks, the teens helped growing pole beans, baby greens, basil, parsley, eggplant, herbs and more. They used their crops to deliver two meals—summer squash with couscous and spices, and Egyptian-style lentils with summer vegetables—to the Brookline Emergency Food Pantry at St. Paul's Church.
"I"ve tasted carrots from the store and carrots from here, and these definitely taste better," said Dexter Jean, on of the three teenagers, along with Jamie Yu and Pema Doma, enrolled in the program.
Ballou said she would eventually like to see Bountiful Brookline operate a larger program, involving many more students, that would allow the students to take leadership roles and build more personal relationships around their food. This summer's program, she said, is just the beginning.
"This is sort of a tasting of what it could be," she said.