Digging through thick mud and scattered mulch with shovels, members of the San Mateo County Health System and Probation Department plant 50 trees on a grassy hillside across from the Youth Services Center, a juvenile detention facility in San Mateo.

The saplings stand out alone against the barren landscape but these young trees have a promising future together. They are part of a greater plan that includes a therapeutic garden with fruit orchard, lavender labyrinth, beehives, medicinal plants, roses and flowers, native grasslands, amphitheater, outdoor kitchen, and more.

Called the Phoenix Garden, this seven-acre area of County-owned land set aside for permaculture gardening and horticultural therapy will provide vulnerable children and teens in the probation, child welfare, education and behavioral health systems respite and tranquility in an outdoor setting as well as an opportunity to garden and connect with nature in the company of caregivers, family members and friends.

“We know that exposure to nature is essential for the healthy development of all children and youth,” said Louise Rogers, chief of the San Mateo County Health System. “The Phoenix Garden makes it possible for children and youth with traumatic childhood experiences to benefit from exposure to nature and specialized therapy that incorporates gardening.”

The San Mateo County Health System, Probation Department and agency partners at the Youth Services Center are working together to create new opportunities for youth on the road of rehabilitation, said Chief Probation Officer John Keene, and the Phoenix Garden is part of that plan.

“Many of the young people we serve unfortunately have never had the opportunity to connect with nature in spite of the fact that San Mateo County is one of the beautiful areas in Northern California,” said Keene. “I can’t think of a more fulfilling, mind-expanding place than the Phoenix Garden to begin or continue the path of rehabilitation.”

The idea for the Phoenix Garden originated over a decade ago when plans for the new Youth Services Center were first developed. The name “Phoenix Garden” refers to the rebirth of not only the site itself, but also of the people whom the garden will help.

In 2011, a steering committee was formed to refine the plan and study its feasibility. That plan illustrates the general spatial layout of the garden and response to the committee’s programmatic goals: providing resources unavailable in San Mateo County such as an outdoor space with an environmental learning lab, therapeutic garden and permaculture garden for kids of the Youth Services Center, students from local schools, the neighboring community, County workers, and general public.

Still years in the making, the garden is just now coming into fruition through the commitment and vision of Dr. Scott Morrow, San Mateo County health officer, and Behavioral Health & Recovery Services.

“Nature as therapy is very important so I never gave up on the idea of this garden,” said Morrow, who was part of the original steering committee. “It’s the best possible medicine we have for highly disadvantaged youth. Experiencing a therapeutic garden and being adequately exposed to nature could be life changing for these young people.”

A work in progress, the Phoenix Garden is a volunteer effort and will be built over the next five to 10 years with volunteer labor and the help of community and corporate groups, kids in juvenile hall, grants, and in-kind funding, said Morrow.

The trees for example came from a small budget item from the Health System. Camp Glenwood boys made the framework for signage at the site. Shade structures were recently put up by a local volunteer group, and the wood chips scattered on pathways were supplied by the Recycle Works program of the County’s Office of Sustainability.

Community members and corporate groups are also contributing their time, a volunteer effort coordinated by Paul Higgins, garden manager at Common Ground Garden, and Kris Jensen, who was the executive director of Collective Roots and was contracted by the County to initially formalize the original garden plan created by Toni DeMarco in 2011 as part of a Permaculture Design Certificate class. 

Since then Higgins has been out there “chiseling away at establishing a ‘Grow Biointensive’ sustainable demonstration garden to show people what entirely sustainable food production looks like,” he said.

Jensen, currently the executive director of Regenerative Communities Collective, is the lead on coordinating volunteers and the work that needs to be done.

It’s this community participation and collaboration between County of San Mateo departments that is moving the Phoenix Garden’s development along, said Morrow.

Couple that with mental health professionals operating seamlessly with the Probation Department staff, the Phoenix Garden project holds great promise to helping young people get back on the good path they were on.

“The fact that this garden will share the campus with the Youth Services Center is a testament to the County of San Mateo’s commitment to its citizens,” said Keene. “The Phoenix Garden project is an extremely important part of the future of juvenile rehabilitation in San Mateo County.”

For individuals, corporate groups and nonprofit organizations interested in volunteering for the Phoenix Garden, call (408) 673-7465 or e-mail krisxjensen@gmail.com.