Gardening as a Tool for Career Development

By Nancy Miller

Gardens are being used in schools, universities and nonprofits to create a healthful environment for education, improved self-esteem, and economic empowerment that are so important for career development. For example the Yale University's "Sustainable Food Project" brings people together around shared food, shared work, and shared inquiry. Exploration, research, testing, and evaluation are career skills that are learned in the garden.

In a recent interview, I had the opportunity to discuss career development and gardening with Trish Fountain who started gardens in an elementary school and two nonprofits last year. For brevity, Trish's comments have been edited and paraphrased by the interviewer while maintaining the intent of the discussion.

NM: How does gardening relate to career development?

Trish: When designing a garden, just like planning a career, you need to think about your strengths, what you really want, how much time you are willing to spend, and what resources are available. From the garden you can also learn that even with the best planning, things may not always work out as expected. In gardening as in career planning, serendipitous events can not only create challenges, but they may also help to resolve them. At a Sacramento elementary school the students prepared seedlings to plant. Due to a communication glitch, the teachers had the kids plant the seeds before they had a water source. Despite the best-laid plans the plants lacked the necessary water. That week it rained unexpectedly which saved most of the plants. Even when one resource fails to materialize, there may be an unexpected avenue for success if the job seeker is open to possibilities.

Gardening can help people feel like they can take action, accomplish something, and see a positive result. At the women's shelter, after carrying seeds back and forth in flats each week, the women were very excited to see the growth. In the garden there is a sense of accountability since the plants wilt if they are not cared for. Children worked with moms and planted seeds in rich soil. You need to plant seeds in fertile soil just as you need to create a healthy environment for planning a career.

NM: How did you come up with the idea for coaching/mentoring in the garden?

Trish: I first thought about gardening for career development while working on an assignment for a graduate class. My partner and I both had an interest in working with high-risk students, as well as people who had challenges to employment. He had worked with a community garden and student entrepreneurship program at Grant High School in Sacramento. We developed a middle school curriculum for designing and planting a garden. I felt passionate about adapting the curriculum to use in the community, so I looked for a program where there was an established garden. I found an opportunity with the "Support Works for Women" program.

I wanted to evolve the program to include the children so they could work together and build connections while exploring career development. Economic empowerment was a big factor for the women. We looked at possible opportunities for women to grow their vegetables and maybe even use products from the garden to make money. Building community and improving self-esteem were key components of the program.

NM: How can designing, planting and cultivating a garden teach job search skills?

Trish: When you begin thinking about designing a garden, you need to know which of your personality traits will help you grow a garden, how much time it takes, and what you like to do. Planning a garden as well as choosing plants is a form of self-exploration. You have to think about what type of garden fits you best, what plants you want to grow, and how you will use them. Four important phases of gardening that relate to career development are: 

1. Exploration. Just like choosing a goal, when you choose a plant, and it doesn't grow in one location, you try something different.

2. Research. Find out where the opportunities are. Learn what plants will grow best in a certain environment.

3. Testing. Gain experience through finding the best fit in the garden or job market. After the harvest you find out what grew and what didn't just as you learn through informational interviewing and internships.

4. Start over. Evaluate the challenges and successes.

NM: What are some of the challenges and successes you found with facilitating career coaching/mentoring in the garden?

Trish: Finding the infrastructure, time and space in an organization that will support a new program is a challenge. It was difficult to build a career gardening program within an established school schedule. In the future I would look into an existing after school program and see what the need or interest is in the neighborhood. Despite the challenges, I was pleased to find that after working in the garden with the students at Oakridge Elementary School, I had established trust among the students. When I came back the next semester as a counseling intern facilitating a group process, the students accepted me as a mentor and counselor as a result of working with them in the garden.

In the community garden, the women in the "Support Works" group learned how to plant and cultivate a raised garden bed, and one of the women took over the vegetable garden at the end of the program. She was very excited that she could save money while providing healthier food for her family. There were distractions and transportation difficulties, but the garden shows you many ways to overcome challenges.

 Interviewee Trish Fountain:

Trish Fountain has a Master of Science in Counseling with a Career Specialization. She is the Director of Career Services at the Florin Community Career Center. She is also involved in an entrepreneurial venture that will provide job training and sustainable business development. You can contact her at: florincc@gmail.com.


Interviewer Nancy Miller (NM)

Nancy Miller, M.S. is a career counselor and LifeWork Coach. She is the director of the Center for LifeWork Design, www.centerforlifeworkdesign.org. She is writing a book based on the presentations she developed using a garden analogy, "Color Your Style with Vegetables", http://www.ccdaweb.org/Docs/Workshop%20Handouts/09-11-7-ColorYourStylewithVegetables.htm. Nancy is currently serving as the Marketing Director/Regional Coordinator for the California Career Development Association. You can contact her at: clwd@njmiller.info or (916) 686-2137.


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