Finding Refuge in an Urban Garden

Finding Refuge in an Urban Garden

Spending time in nature can serve as a buffer against childhood adversity and toxic stress. But what if you live a long way from the ocean, forests or even a meadow? Besides urban parks and playgrounds – which have been associated with better mood, focus and physical activity – having your own garden may help you create the oasis you need.

In fact, the best way to reduce neighborhood crime may be a rake and handful of seeds, according to a study of mostly low-income neighborhoods in Philadelphia. It found that cleaning up 44,000 vacant lots and “greening” them was associated with a 30% reduction in gun violence. In addition, residents near the renovated lots used them to socialize and relax 76% more than people living near abandoned lots.

Such findings may come as no surprise to Bobby Bostic of St. Louis, whose essay “A Garden in the Ghetto” is a haunting tribute to his mother’s perseverance in creating a flourishing vegetable and flower garden in her small back yard. “Growing up in the inner-city ghetto of St. Louis, Missouri did not allow our family to see many of nature’s wonders,” Bostic wrote. “Our neighborhoods were full of vacant houses, broken-down cars, drug dealers every which way you looked, gangbangers posted up and down the block, broken beer bottles littering the sidewalks, yards with run-down grass, streetlights that didn’t work. It was more like nature’s curse rather than nature’s gift. 

“There was, however, an exception. Ironically, it was right there in my own backyard. Yep, my mother had a small garden. When she first started this garden, people looked at her like she was crazy. Her friends made comments like “Girl, what are you doing planting a garden in this dump,” and “Dee Dee, do not waste your time because somebody will just steal your vegetables before you get them”, “It will never work in this neighborhood,” etc. Being the determined soul that she is, fortunately my mother ignored the critics.”

Being a curious child, Bostic writes, he trailed his mother, watching in amazement as she bought a hoe to turn the hard soil, purchased seed packets from a local hardware store, and then put on a straw hat and worked on her knees every day under the scorching sun. Shaking the little seed packets like a rattle, Bostic “wondered how anything could possibly grow from the seeds in these bags.” But his mother persisted. As Bostic recalled, “My mother is a proud lady…People shook their heads at her, but my mother did not care.”

And his mother’s hard work paid off: Their garden blossomed into a glorious backyard paradise. “It was a beautiful sight. In the backdrop of an alley littered with trash and cracked concrete stood her picturesque garden. It was many colors. The greens were growing everywhere. She had yellow flowers back there, cucumbers, lettuce sprouting everywhere, and other stuff that I do not know the name of. It sure looked good, though. And it tasted even better. She would have certain days where we ate entire meals made entirely from what she cooked in her garden.”

“Lo and behold, those same neighbors who criticized her meager
efforts started coming over asking her for some of the vegetables and other
edibles that she was delicately growing. My mother never holds grudges and she
was proud to share her fruits and vegetables with all of her neighbors. She
would store a lot of what she grew in the house and give everything else away
to her neighbors and her sisters. This became a sort of tradition for her.
Despite how poor our family was, my mother would not allow poverty
to define her. In our concrete city streets, she created her own personal
paradise. Despite all the negativity surrounded us her kids could go into this
garden and find some refuge of peace. It was our own little corner of the world.”

Bostic recalls watching his mother relaxing in sandals in a chair in her garden, “oblivious to the world, just sitting there drinking some tea, straight chilling.” She told him that she was always at peace in her garden. “Like a rose that grew from the concrete, she defied the odds,” he wrote. “By refusing to allows the walls of hell to close in on her, my mother created her own paradise right there by way of her lovely garden.”

Bobby Bostic is serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole for a robbery committed when he was 16, although the robbery did not result in injuries to a victim. The United States is the only country in the world that sentences people to life without parole for crimes committed before they were 18 — something that the US Supreme Court ruled in 2012 was unconstitutional. As of 2016, there were roughly 2,310 prisoners in U.S. facilities sentenced as a juvenile to life in prison without parole, and racial disparities in sentencing are marked. You can read more about Bostic’s case and writings here and efforts to change sentencing laws.


Dengler R. “This city fights crime with gardening. Science, February 26, 2018.

Kondo MC. Neighborhood Interventions. Annu Rev Public Health, 2018.

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Kondo M, et al. Urban Green Space and Its Impact on Human Health. Intl J Environ Public Health. 2018;15(3), 455.


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