What’s growing at Rikers Island GreenHouse

Students at the GreenHouse on Rikers Island research, collaborate, and select which plants to grow in the garden. They choose delicious vegetables, useful herbs, and beautiful flowers. The harvest is different every year, but the lessons stay they same – cultivating healthier futures. Find out what’s growing this year:

Students at the juvenile facility – Sixteen & Seventeen 

Growing garlic is a true test of character.

Last November, when the garden at the juvenile facility was barely over four months old, the 16 and 17-year-old horticulture students planted cloves in deep, black grow bags. The large soil delivery had not arrived to the newly created program, so plant options were limited. The decision to plant this small crop required the utmost trust in seed garlic’s potential to produce in non-traditional circumstances.

As with all things in the garden, patience is critical. As you may know, gardeners plant seed garlic 6 to 8 weeks before the first winter frost. With such a long time between planting and harvesting, about 8 months, many students knew they would not be with the program long enough to taste their work. Despite this, they embraced their task and chose to leave something beautiful behind for those that come after – to step outside themselves as individuals, consider what it means to build community, and to think with longevity.

The students carefully made holes with their fingers in cold soil, buried them snugly, watered them in, and let them be. Throughout the winter, they covered it with a blanket of straw, cared for it, and watched it peek out of the soil. Then a new group came. These new students were thrilled to see strong green shoots in the spring and a harvest of full, hardy paper bulbs.

Cloves have now been used to make cold remedies, given to other facilities’ horticulture students to enjoy, and mixed into delicious herb cream cheese. All because of the trust, patience and investment of students eight months prior.

The main GreenHouse garden – Nineteen and Older 

Horticultural Therapists love using garden metaphors to emphasize lessons. It helps students relate to their lives, see things slightly differently, and engage with their work in the garden more meaningfully. This summer, because of the metaphor-love, students planted the “three sisters” corn, beans and squash for the first time at the GreenHouse.

Although all gardeners worked to wheelbarrow nearly 50 barrows of compost to build up and level the ground, two students took on the patch as their responsibility. They measured out fifteen 10X10 areas squares, planted four corn seeds in a cross, beans next to the corn, and three squash seeds in the center. Timing is important for the success of a “three sisters” planting.  The corn takes the longest time to harvest, yet if planted too early it can shade out the growth of beans and squash.

The “three sisters” is a traditional planting by the Native Americans in North America.  Each of the crops planted provides support for each other and a balanced diet for the gardener.  The corn is a natural trellis (supporting) for the beans to climb; the squash shades out weed growth (protecting); and the beans fix nitrogen (giving) in the soil for the benefit of all three sisters. During the season, the planting provides an opportunity to discuss the importance of recognizing and accepting each role we play in our family, work, or community.

Now, everyone looks forward to a bountiful harvest and a delicious meal together – one that connects us to the native peoples of this land.

The Herb Garden – Nineteen and Older 

The Herb Garden is one of the most popular places at GreenHouse. It features a variety of culinary, medicinal, and ornamental plants. Each plant is chosen as a group – building camaraderie and teamwork. Together, students learn the cultural importance of each plant, sow from seed, and put the harvest to good use.


Often, students do not have the opportunity to share with others. Even though a gift or a kind gesture goes a long way in a prison that can harbor tension and stress. The Herb Garden provides that opportunity: everything grown in the 28 raised beds is for the students to share.


Culinary herbs, such as rosemary, tarragon, and thyme become seasoning for meals shared to celebrate student send offs. Hot peppers transform into hot sauce or dried for seasonings. Chamomile, valerian, and wormwood, grown for their calming properties, turn into delicious tea, while lavender and mint combine for a sweet smelling sachet. Each outcome delivered to another – growing community and building trust.


Juveniles at the detention center – Sixteen & Seventeen

At a new program site for GreenHouse, adolescent students toiled to sculpt two new courtyards and a breezeway for their future garden. The site will come to include landscaped areas with annual and perennial ornamentals, as well as a full raised bed system for dwarf fruit trees, herbs and edibles. Unfortunately, the late arrival of growing soil meant they’d missed the mark for many annual vegetable crops. Not wanting to miss out, students diligently transplanted into dozens of felt grow-bags the most spirited, pungent and piquant members of the Nightshade family; the humble chili peppers.

In a carceral environment, the chili pepper is an obvious choice, especially among young people who love to challenge their peers.  Beyond that, the blandness and redundancy in daily diet is almost the exactly opposite of the varied sensory and stimulating effects delivered by a mouthful of capsaicin.

For many young students, the geography of the chili and immense pride taken in regional cultivars are a hallmark of cultural and familial identity. From Mexico to Mozambique, Jamaica to Jakarta, regional varieties are prized and praised: something to remember grandma by or to transform the lethargy of a hot, lazy summer afternoon. Hailing from culinary traditions the world over, the students have grown all the standards, from Jalapenos, Habaneros and Serranos to Bells and Sweets. Often, they will venture into the exotic with Thai Hots, Jamaican Scotch Bonnets, and the Indian Ghost Pepper (Bhut jolokia).