Vertical Garden Bears More than Fruit

Jessica Holmes and Tenisha Bolds

Bolds and Holmes created a vertical garden for LearnLinks students and their families

Tenisha Bolds works with kids in the LearnLinks after school tutoring program, at an apartment community owned and operated by Human Solutions in East Portland. One of the things she’s been thinking about is: How to indulge her young students’ love for fresh fruits and vegetables?

It’s a problem many parents would love to have, but for Bolds - a Health and Wellness Specialist - the challenge took a creative turn: Now she and her colleague, Resource Specialist Jessica Holmes, are growing a vertical garden packed with vegetables and herbs, and bringing the produce to the families they work with.

And they’re thinking about how to launch a cooking show on YouTube to help their participants’ families create their own delicious, fresh meals from scratch.

About 138 kids show up – now virtually – at LearnLinks every week to get help with their schoolwork. The idea behind the program is to provide family support for public school students in Human Solutions’ affordable housing communities to thrive in the classroom.

Good nutrition is covered within a unit in the science curriculum. Bolds says when she asked the kids in her k-8th grade program at Lincoln Woods apartments what vegetables they liked, the answer was: kale. And that answer became an inspiration for more science lessons.

“Then we started talking about growing some vegetables and bringing them in,” Holmes says. At first they tried regular gardening at the apartment complex, but space was limited. “So we decided to start vertical growing.”

The technique is ancient -- think Hanging Gardens of Babylon. But in modern times, new growing structures are easy to find online and fun to build; Holmes and Jones started their seeds in hanging structures and then planted the emerging sprouts in an array of planter boxes in Bolds’ backyard.

The “babies,” as Bolds calls the plants, have included a farm’s-worth of crops.

“We’ve got carrots, onions, eggplant, corn and cucumbers. Then we have peppermint, chamomile, chives, oregano, let me see what else? We also have parsley, we have lavender and we have basil. Then there’s also cabbage, kale, rosemary, hot peppers, brussels sprouts, cilantro, bok choy, thyme, and sweet peppers so far. Oh and honeydew, because the kids love honeydew.”

Bolds’ parents also have green thumbs: her father tends a vegetable garden on his patio and her mother raises houseplants. Years ago, her mother shared a secret tip on how to keep the greenery growing:

“My mom says you have to talk to the plants or they won’t come up, so I’m out here all the time, just talking,” Bolds says. “And I play music for them - they like all kinds of music. And I swear it works - because the corn was the smallest and now they are an inch tall!”

Holmes says the idea was inspired by a cooking and nutrition training she and Bolds attended together.

“This program is important to me because when I participated in a health and nutrition class and learned about all of the additives they put in the food, it scared me,” Holmes said. “Also, I love the fact that we can eat food that we’ve grown ourselves.”

“We are all organic,” Bolds says. “We used no chemicals, because the class we got certified in taught us all about what the chemicals do, and it’s also changed our eating habits.”

Bolds says the most important part about the project is bringing healthy produce into families’ homes. While the LearnLinks program is for kids, in practice the teachers connect with their families, too, since families are an essential part of children’s learning.

“It’s natural, it’s coming from the garden, and it’s a shame that more people don’t know how to grow their own food,” Holmes says.

Next, Bolds and Holmes are working to create recipes for their program using food box ingredients mixed with the bounty from their garden. The food boxes are part of the USDA program distributed through the Sunshine Division and through a grant from Windermere.

“We can make the same things that our program participants can make, because they’re going to have the same ingredients,” Bolds says.

“But they don’t have access to a lot of fresh vegetables, so we made sure to grow enough vegetables so they have some, too.”

Bolds credits her Human Solutions Program Manager Tonya Parson for offering support - even successfully pursuing a grant from the Portland Children’s Levy - to help make it possible.

“Since I love gardening and the kids are always asking for fruits and vegetables, me and Tonya came up with the idea,” Bolds says. “Now she told me about vertical growing, and then I took it from there and I started growing in the vertical growers.”

And as the lush little plants are bursting with life in the fence in Bolds’ own yard, she and Holmes are moving ahead with big plans-inspired in part by the any nationalities of their students, whose families hail from Somalia, Kenya, Haiti, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Mexico, Guatemala, Ukraine, and Russia.

To grow their nutrition curriculum further, Bolds says she and Holmes are working on expanding their video skills to launch their own cooking show on YouTube. As part of the LearnLinks Virtual Summer School over the past few months, they and their team members took a crash course in Google Classroom, weaving in YouTube videos where they could but also learning basic video for themselves.

The duo has moved from vegetables to science and video technology – and back to vegetables – in the space of one summer.

“So since me and Tonya originally started talking about it, my thing is that every month we would do foods of a different nationality - so like one month it would be Asian, maybe Turkish, Somalian,” Bolds says.

“So I’ve been looking at different recipes like cabbage wraps - that’s Italian. I’m going to try to make that so that I can teach people how to make them. But I found a whole lot of different recipes from different cultures that we can make, plus I love to cook.”

Holmes agrees.

“I just love cooking with fresh ingredients, and it’s actually pretty fun and exciting to see your progress,” Holmes says. “Now don’t get me wrong, it’s not an easy job - but it’s very rewarding.”

Aside from Holmes and Parson, Bolds’ biggest supporter is her daughter Tai’ Ana Williams, who has helped plant, weed and water the vertical garden.

Williams has her own take on the project:

“It’s about bonding,” she says. “Growing things, you have to bond with your plants, you have to talk to them and stuff. And then when you’re planting them and you’re bonding with them, it makes you feel special because you’re doing it. I feel like it would be better for everyone to plant their own things so that they could feel special and know that they’re doing it not only for themselves, but for others as well.”

At Human Solutions, we’re building a community where all people can share in the security, hopes and advantages of a thriving, supportive community. Projects like this garden are a wonderful example of how we all benefit when we do things that are part of something larger than ourselves.