Growing for Malden: behind the high school community garden that could

Jadelini Mora, president of the Malden High School Gardening Club, pruning plants in the makerspace.

By Bryan Liu

In an empire of sawdust, a jungle blooms.

Malden High School’s makerspace is a warehouse-sized engineering classroom that doubles as a fully-stocked workshop for hands-on STEM-based extracurriculars — but against the windowsill, a row of lush hydroponics sticks out like a sore thumb — a green one. 

The community garden’s corner of the makerspace.

This is where Malden’s Youth Community Garden trains in the off-season. 

Malden High School Senior, Jadelini Mora, explains that the makerspace is the perfect nursery for plants to mature indoors during the colder months until it’s warm enough for them to be moved into one of 23 planting beds that make up the garden outside.

To expand their planting space, the club built a greenhouse in April. It’s somewhere between professional and DIY. 

The greenhouse outside the makerspace.

The thermal ‘greenhouse effect’ owes its namesake to the sheets of UV-resistant plastic affixed with only a mile of duct tape and several elbows’ worth of elbow grease. The layers of tarp are just translucent enough to glimpse the sun-kissed gloss of green-ish horticulture from a distance. 

Now the club can garden all year-long. 

Mora is one of three co-presidents who shares the office with a treasurer, club historian, social media manager, and HR department — she’s been with the club since day one. 

“Most kids in this high school never garden because we’re always around urban areas — I never gardened before the club,” said Mora.

Malden’s urban landscape makes it possible for young people to go their whole lives without ever touching grass. Under the advent of today’s digital environment, the actual environment pales in comparison.

Club Advisor, Ashley Freeman, believes gardening can teach people to embrace nature. 

“We have students who have never touched dirt — some students need encouragement to touch the dirt. They’re like ‘ew that’s gross,’ but once they’re in there, they like it,” said Freeman.

Ashley Freeman securing a tomato plant to a wooden stake inside the greenhouse.

Gardening is quickly aging out of the 21st-century: the learning curve is far too steep for something so high-maintenance, it takes forever, and if done wrong, yields next to nothing. 

Some would say it’s embarrassing to garden. 

“We went outside after school once to get water and there was a massive group of students waiting in line for their bus and they were just looking at us like ‘woah is that the gardening club?’” said Mora. 

Unfortunately, the words ‘Gardening Club’ come with a stigma that harkens back to hippie environmentalists or middle-aged women in wide-brimmed hats, neither of which screams ‘we’re a serious STEM-based organization.’

“[Gardening] goes so much into science and too many people think it’s just sunshine and rainbows,” said Mora.

Gardening isn’t trendy for a good reason: it’s hard.

While Mora admits that learning about pH levels or soil toxicity can get boring at times, it’s literally the bare minimum. In the beginning of the school year, many freshmen joined under the presumption that gardening would be easy and 80 percent of them had quit by November. They were replaced by members who were genuinely passionate about growing plants. 

Measuring nutrient levels in the plants.

And although club members like Mora may research plants on-paper, some lessons only come from trial and error.

Mora believes in restorative pruning: selectively trimming off small damaged sections of the plant to stimulate development — and while the procedure is common, cutting off too much stem runs the risk of plant shock — causing the whole plant to stop growing.

“I learned this the hard way when I cut too much off a squash plant and it died,” said Mora. 

For every garden, there is a graveyard. 

“We tried to plant sweet potatoes once, but instead of planting them diagonally because the ends of potatoes grow in bunches, we grew them straight down and we just saw this weird stump in the soil. It just wasn’t edible,” said Mora.

Chrysanthemums may be natural pesticides, but in some cases, they are actually deadly to other plants — Mora only knows this because the aforementioned ‘other plants’ are dead.

“And that’s why companion planting is so important because some plants work better with other plants,” said Mora. 

Mora and her team aren’t trying to make gardening cooler than it already is, they’re trying to make it accessible

Jadelini Mora, who will be attending Rutgers University in the fall.

“People are surprised when they find out there are boys who garden. They always say ‘gardening is so feminine,’ or ‘it’s such a girly thing, it’s really just about the plants,’” said Mora.

But this is not a story that asks ‘to garden or not to garden’ — Malden’s Youth Community Garden was always about feeding people. 

Freeman teaches a class called Engineering For Our Community — the community in question: Malden. And after identifying local food insecurity, students were tasked with creative problem solving — their solution was simple: build a community garden. 

In 2022 — that same summer, Tufts University sponsored a paid summer gardening program with 12 Malden High school students — Mora was one of them. Led by a group of five Tufts alumni, the group had built a garden with leftover scraps from the makerspace in just two months. 

“We can’t feed people in large amounts yet because this is still a very brand new club — first year and everything — but from last year we did see a lot of people picking up vegetables,” said Mora. 

Community members are encouraged to window-shop and take produce if they’re in need — there’s no fence around the garden. Freeman says what isn’t taken is donated to local food banks.

An improvised ladder-emoji scarecrow beside garden beds — ready for planting season.

The garden is pesticide-free — marigold flowers act as a natural deterrent and all plants are free of chemicals and herbicides — in the non-USDA approved sense of the word, it’s organic. 

Cover crops also act like living mulch by attracting beneficial insects and certain elements to the soil — their roots prevent soil erosion and keep the soil moist.

“Everything we use here is completely natural—that’s why a lot of our stuff tastes better,” said Mora.

The cherry tomatoes are yellow and red, some are pear-shaped, some just look like tomatoes.  They’re sweet — unlike the bitter supermarket tomatoes Mora grew up on. 

“Before I wasn’t a big fan of vegetables because they tasted so bitter in the supermarket but I really like our garden greens,” said Mora.

There’s a deeper reason why they don’t use pesticides. 

“Because we’re poor,” said Mora, offering a punchline that only the head of a student organization could land.

The club is financially independent — there is no school funding. The entire budget comes from donations and lemonade stand and bake sale fundraisers — they buy their seeds from specialists like Gurney’s Seeds and Nursery Co. and Johnny’s Select Seeds. 

Garden beds behind the “Malden High School Community Garden” sign.

The garden is more than a club, it’s a place for people to relax, a place for meeting new people, and a place for those who are food insecure — in other words: a community, by the community, for the community. And it’s all the more special to share this space with kids who don’t already have the opportunity to garden. 

“People can leave the hallways behind here and a lot of students often mention how it calms them down. It’s quiet,” said Mora.

Freeman noticed how the garden uplifted a class of teenagers who had spent the last couple of years chronically-inside. Kids seemed especially reluctant to talk in class.  

But everything changed once they were able to garden outside.

“It was like magic seeing the way the kids opened up and started talking and interacting, being happy, making jokes, and playing around,” said Freeman.

Teenagers are like plants themselves. A little sunlight does the trick.

A peek inside the Malden High School gardening club and their self-directed initiative to grow food, connect with nature and bond as a community of teenage gardening enthusiasts.

Support the Malden Youth Community Garden Today!

About Bryan Liu 3 Articles
Bryan Liu is an intern with Urban Media Arts. He is a freshman journalism student at Emerson College.


  1. YES! a fabulously written article that sneaks in some good information! And the video is inspirational. I must admit it brought tears of joy to my eyes!

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