Did you know that The Fortune Society’s supportive housing residents grow their own rooftop fruit and vegetable garden? This initiative is the realization of a Fortune-sponsored horticultural program that began in 2011. The garden, called the Sky Garden, is situated on the rooftop of Castle Gardens, Fortune’s residential development and service center in West Harlem, which offers supportive permanent housing to tenants with low income. For these tenants, many of whom have experiences with incarceration or homelessness, Castle Gardens is a welcome refuge.
With autumn nearing, the roof is rich with homegrown goods that, once picked, will go straight to dinner plates. These communally grown crops were carefully tended to for almost a year. Eggplants, strawberries, pumpkins, and collard greens illustrate the garden’s significance; this season’s harvest serves hearty sustenance.
Every morning, the gardeners take the elevator to the top floor and tend to their garden plots. Under the guidance of horticulturalist Deborah Shaw, they’ve worked together to cultivate a rich assortment of fruits, vegetables, herbs, and tubers.
Their successful yields are especially impressive when considering that participants had limited gardening experience prior to joining the program. It’s all knowledge they’ve learned through the program and it’s taken quite a bit of work. The gardeners learned early on that without daily nurturing, plants die. Growing a garden is an exercise in discipline and dedication.
Of all the gardeners, Barbara Biscaino is among the most dedicated.
She’s responsible for the majority of the garden crops, and often visits the rooftop multiple times a day. For Barbara, the garden is both recreation and a resource. Barbara has hypertension and diabetes, two diseases that are common to people with justice histories. In fact, hypertension and diabetes are nearly two times more prevalent among incarcerated persons than in the general population. The prevalence is associated with the almost exclusive use of cheap, processed foods in the majority of U.S prisons. One Bureau of Justice survey found that nearly three-fourths of incarcerated persons were overweight or obese. Castle Garden’s rooftop garden helps to counteract this. Now, Barbara and other participants bring home healthy, fresh, foods that, they say, they would otherwise struggle to afford at the supermarket.
According to Deborah, most of the gardeners actively use their plots to cultivate food for home. For many, including Barbara, the garden has become so important that whole families are starting to get involved. Barbara’s daughter visits the garden regularly to help her mom tend the greens and pick the lemon balm. Regina, another gardener, has shared that her eight-year-old son now insists on taking lavender to school, in order to impress the ladies with its pretty scent.
There is something undeniably special about the garden atop Castle Gardens, and it isn’t just its beauty or abundant harvest. Amid the growing fruits and vegetables, a community is growing, too. For 50 years, Fortune has worked to build healing spaces for people coming home from incarceration. This garden is but one example.
Today, we wonder: What will next year’s harvest bring?
Article written by Aya Abdelaziz