Among the rows of sunflowers and fresh herbs, patches of zucchini, tomatoes and chard burst from the ground. Butterflies flutter between colorful zinnias, lizards scamper across sun-warmed soil, bees buzz about and the fragrance of roses wafts through the air. Sometimes, change sprouts from the most unexpected places, and in northwest Pasadena, on two acres sandwiched between John Muir High School and the 210 freeway, is a flourishing urban garden, where knowledge is cultivated, hidden talents are unearthed and futures begin to blossom.
“We’re a teen jobs program that looks like a school farm,” explained “Mud” Baron, the aptly named master gardener and executive director of Muir Ranch. For the past four years, Baron has taught students at Muir how to plant, grow and harvest their own food and flowers. They’ve learned how to till soil, to cast worms, when to water and when not to. They’ve learned to arrange and sell bouquets, manage orders and work with clients. If they can endure the sun, sweat and dirt, and they keep coming back, they get a paycheck out of it.
Before it had a name, Muir Ranch started with a few flower beds in an empty lot — the brainchild of Doss Jones, a retired Muir science teacher with a vision for an outdoor classroom. With administrative approval and a grant from Pasadena Water and Power, Jones worked with Shirly Barrett, facilities grounds coordinator for Pasadena Unified School District, to build a small drought-tolerant garden behind the campus.
“The garden came from a deep sense in me of kids being disconnected from the earth,” said Jones. “I wanted to take the computers out of their hands and put soil in them, have them grow plants and experience the wonder of nature.”
Jones met Baron, who’d previously worked as a school gardens consultant and green policy deputy for L.A. Unified School District, through a master gardening course, and in 2011, brought him on to help shape the space into what it is today.
“We started off the program with no infrastructure,” said Baron. “There were a couple of garden beds and a concrete rubble pile and some kids that had never had jobs before. So I was like, ‘Alright, let’s figure this out.’”
It wasn’t surprising that the allure of nature that brought students to the ranch in the beginning. Many were filling elective requirements or recovering credits. Others used it as an excuse to get out of gym class or complete detention. Even for those who chose to be there, doing manual labor in the hot sun felt a lot like punishment.
“It was like, ‘Go outside and work in a field,’” recalled Manny Garcia, a program veteran who graduated from Muir in 2013. He started working on the ranch in the summer of 2012 to make up some class credits. “It was scorching. It was dirty. I used to mess up my clothes and my good shoes, and it was arrogant of me coming in here with new, fresh shoes and working in the mud and dirt. It’s a dirty job.”
As he spent more time in the garden, however, Garcia’s attitude started to shift. Under Baron’s mentorship, he began to learn by doing, taking an interest in subjects that never held his attention in the classroom.
“Mud started talking to me as an adult, rather than treating me as a student,” he explained. “He taught me what photosynthesis is, what perennials are, the way plants grow and how they exist to multiply and give off oxygen. My mind just started growing.”
For fellow alumna Alondra Suaste, who chose the ranch as an elective shortly after its launch in 2011, it was the sense of comradery that kept her around.
“People were just friendly, and it was very easy to get involved,” the 19-year-old said. “I remember starting high school here and this was nothing but piles of mulch, and as I would see the progress that people were making, I started liking it. Being a part of something that can change people’s lives, it’s something that I’m proud of.”
Both Suaste and Garcia have since graduated and are now paid employees of Muir Ranch, running the flower department that helps sustain the program through farmers’ market sales, weddings and private events. Additional income is brought in by Muir’s tax-deductible community supported agriculture program, which has about 75 weekly subscribers. Throughout the year, Muir Ranch also partners with local chefs and restaurants to host farm-to-table dinners in the garden, raising funds for the program while highlighting the students’ harvest in professionally prepared dishes.
All of this is helping to shape the way students think and feel about the food they eat. By growing their own food, students form a personal connection with it, gaining a deeper understanding of the journey from seed to plate.
“When you put so much work into something, you want to taste the outcome, and what’s better than eating what you grow?” said Suaste. “I’ve gotten to try all kinds of new foods that we grow. I enjoy it now, because I know where it comes from.”
That’s not to say all of the kids at Muir are ready to abandon their Flaming Hot Cheetos.
“Most of them don’t even eat fresh food,” sighed Jill McArthur, who manages the Muir Ranch CSA program. “We’re now in the generation that grew up on fast food, and that’s what everyone does, because it’s cheap. If you can do that, why would you buy and prepare fresh food if that’s not part of your culture growing up?”
In changing students’ attitudes, one can’t ignore the reality of his/her surroundings, and at Muir High School, it’s not all sunshine and roses. Many of Muir’s students are dealing with much bigger issues — 86% are on free or reduced lunch, while 23% live in group homes or foster care.
“To be a gardener is about nurturing, and it’s a tall order to ask someone who may not have anything to take care of something else,” explained Baron. “A lot of my kids just need paychecks, so we’ve become a work program.”
Paid internships are available to Muir students who work on the farm during summer break or outside of class hours during the school year. Students start out on a volunteer basis, and after two weeks, they’re added to the payroll. For many with no previous job experience, working at Muir Ranch offers not only a steady part-time income, but also enhances their post-high school employment prospects.
“A lot of these kids, when they get really good, tend to get hired elsewhere,” Baron said. “So they’re going into the working world with some years of experience: knowing how to show up on time, follow instructions and work in a self-directed way, which are all things employers want.”
Not all of Baron’s prodigies will become farmers. Suaste eventually plans to move on and get a nursing degree, though she says she’ll stay involved with the ranch in her spare time. The green-thumbed Garcia, however, is convinced he’s found his calling. Having learned about water conservation and worked with drip irrigation systems at Muir Ranch, the enterprising 20-year-old sees opportunities for a career in water-wise landscaping, particularly as California’s drought continues to worsen.
“Naturally, California has a lot of day laborers who are Mexicans, Salvadorans, whatever, and people make fun of me for working as a gardener, but I really don’t care. I’m going to change the way Californians use their water,” he declared. “Those changes are coming, and that’s going to be my business. It’s all about what you need for the future.”
Aside from developing problem-solving, communication, customer service and business management skills, at Muir Ranch, students learn responsibility, teamwork, initiative and self-reliance. Perhaps most important, they learn to be leaders, finding a sense of purpose in the garden — whether they’re looking for it or not.
“This has a huge beneficial effect for everyone that comes through here,” said McArthur. “Learning how to do what you’re asked to do and not complain about it is a life skill. Persevering through a job that you don’t like is a life skill. Finding out that you have a gift when you thought you had nothing to look forward to? That is huge.”