July 24, 2021

Bayside Community Center’s Therapeutic Gardening Lets Youth Relax and Get Their Hands Dirty 

Vivian Hidalgo, Case Investigator/Regional Health Promotion, County of San Diego

After more than a year of receiving education virtually, students in the San Diego Unified School District can choose to spend part of their summer in the classroom, on stage, behind the camera, or digging in the garden.  The Level Up SD Summer of Learning and Joy features in-person classroom instruction in the mornings at neighborhood schools with San Diego Unified teachers and summer activities offered by dozens of nonprofits in communities across the city. This summer enrichment program is free to all San Diego Unified students through grants and a partnership with The San Diego Foundation.

“Getting students back into a routine that is going to provide them with joy, fun, smiles, and laughter is so, so needed," said Pamela Gray Payton, vice president of community impact and chief impact and partnerships officer for The San Diego Foundation.

Bayside Community Center in Linda Vista was awarded one of the Level Up SD grants, implementing the Garden Therapy in Linda Vista program, to bring students out of the virtual classroom and into the garden to increase their connection with the natural world, help support self-efficacy, improve problem-solving and teamwork skills, and reduce stress and anxiety.  

The program was designed to bring students together to build a safe community and connect with the natural world by engaging their senses in garden activities. Amy Zink and her program co-director Emalyn Leppard, both hold certificates in Horticultural Therapy. They co-wrote the program and are trained to help students reap all the health and wellness benefits that working in the soil can bring.

The students begin each day with Ms. Leppard and Ms. Amy in the Kumeyaay Circle with a reflection on the previous day’s activity and how it will connect to “today’s work”.   They are then given an object from nature to hold in their hand, while being led through a calming meditation. With their eyes closed, their feet flat on the ground and shoulders relaxed, the students slowly inhale and exhale as they feel the sensory object in their hand and learn about its uses. As they complete this sensory experience, their hands are now ready for the days’ task: learning to make a healthy soil mixture.

The students also learn all about plant life cycles, roots and nutrients, and how to care for and plant a variety of plants, including basil, green beans, cucumbers, and cilantro. The program includes daily fruit and vegetable tastings as part of the sensory experience and is a delicious way to bring joy to the garden experience. By the end of the day, each student will have prepared two 10-gallon cloth grow bags, aka “tiny gardens”, as a way for the students to bring what they learned home with them.  These Grow Bags can support enough food for a family to enjoy for the rest of the growing season.

 “After the past year of lockdown, children can really benefit from activities that focus on outdoor play, exercise, the arts, and collaborative activities,” said Amy Zink, co-director of the Garden Therapy in Linda Vista program. “This is an opportunity for them to have some outside enrichment in a program where we can help them deal with some of their stress and anxiety. Bayside Community Center and Linda Vista is where my heart is because the residents work tirelessly to advocate for a thriving community.”

Meet Amy Zink

Amy Zink has over 22 years of professional experience in urban farming and garden education and has been a part-time garden educator with the County of San Diego for the last 5 years.  Within that capacity she has assisted in the planning and installation and program development for over 25 community and school gardens, while also working part time at Bayside Community Center

She believes in sharing the fundamentals of gardening and being in nature with adults and children, as well as teaching others through hands on workshops how to grow and eat healthy fruits and vegetables 

Amy recently worked with the Lemon Grove Community Collaborative and the City of Lemon Grove to prepare and implement a grant for the Lemon Grove Community Garden, a Project of Thrive Lemon Grove. The grant helped build two new garden beds at the Lemon Grove Senior Center which will provide fresh organic vegetables to residents of a nearby senior and low-income housing complex.  

“Amy is just a gem. She is an amazing human and so helpful,” says Joyce Moore of the Lemon Grove Community Collaborative. “She even provided a lesson on planting potatoes over zoom for our Lemon Grove Garden Community, and they just loved her.”

Amy has also been working with PATH at their downtown residence since January of this year. In collaboration with the University of San Diego Changemaker Challenge, she assisted with the design and installation of a rooftop vegetable and herb garden. PATH residents have taken part in each step of the implementation during weekly garden sessions by using Amy’s evidence based horticultural therapy principles. Residents learn the basics of gardening, how to grow seasonally appropriate vegetables and fruits, and how to use them in basic recipes when they prepare meals at home. The garden offers free, fresh produce grown with organic practices to help residents who face food insecurities. Completing garden tasks helps increase self-efficacy in the residents and creates opportunities for new friendships.  

“Working with PATH residents, I’ve noticed that several of them have recalled memories of gardens they planted in their past with loved ones,” said Amy. “One resident told me that filling the garden bed with compost and topsoil, and planting cherry tomatoes helped her feel calm as she remembered the garden she and her grandfather built in Hawaii when she was a child.” 

Amy is looking forward to collaborating with other advocates of urban agriculture to help see their funding build healthier communities throughout the region.