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Peter Hinrichs Connects Youths with the Organic Environment
OLC Apprentice Program Going Strong in Massachusetts
By Kathy Litchfield
Transplanting seedlings, selling organic plants to customers and maintaining school grounds organically is all in a day’s work for the 75 students engaged in Peter Hinrichs’ curriculum at The Learning Prep School in West Newton, Mass.
Hinrichs, accredited since 2009 (Newburyport, MA course) works as the horticultural specialist, greenhouse manager and curriculum developer for the alternative school’s landscape program. To his new position (he started in February 2013) he brings five years experience working with inner-city youths aged 16-22 at YouthBuild Boston. Hinrichs sees parallels amongst these young populations.
“All of these students are highly functional and have an interest in working with the landscape. They all need skills to move forward and earn credentials they can take with them upon high school graduation,” he said. “Basically I’ve found that most of the kids I worked with in an urban environment have the same disadvantages and developmental obstacles as the kids I’m working with here at the Learning Prep School. We offer hands on learning and alternatives to the traditional school model including life skills to help them be independent adults and see education from a different perspective.”
“In the horticultural environment, they all come together to do hands-on work that is new to all of them. The work that happens here is something everybody can grasp and understand. Everyone’s learning the same thing and everyone is treated the same way,” he explained.
"Teaching students how to start seeds, grow plants, control pests organically with beneficial insects and organically maintain school grounds are skills the students can use in everyday life as well as for a potential career," he said.
“There are so many teachable moments, in horticulture, organic landscape development, sustainability and customer service,” he said. “We teach them processes here in the greenhouse that they can compare to what happens naturally outside the greenhouse in the natural environment. It’s important to get them to understand things that affect them and help them make connections to the natural environment.”
During the five years Hinrichs worked at YouthBuild Boston’s horticultural program, he founded an Organic Land Care Apprentice Program, partnering with NOFA/Mass. Through an intensive five day curriculum each July, the youths learn organic land care skills, pass a test, and earn an achievement certificate that serves as a credential to help them gain employment.
The curriculum, which Hinrichs authored, involves learning through installing public organic land care demonstration projects and working with well-established AOLCPs as teachers.
In 2011, youths from YouthBuild Boston, the Rose Kennedy Greenway Conservancy and the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative planted a “lawn alternative” garden at the Boston Nature Center’s Audubon facility in Mattapan; last year youths cleaned up and renovated a Roxbury neighborhood park.
In 2011, 13 students achieved the certificate; last year 12 did. Several have gone on to work in the landscape industry¸ one at the Rose F. Kennedy Greenway Conservancy in Boston and another for an interior plant company utilizing organic practices in Boston.
“We plan to continue the program this summer with the hope that it can become a model other organizations and schools can use,” Hinrichs said. In addition to providing youths with employment skills and a horticultural education, the public demonstration projects serve as excellent outreach for adults of all ages to learn about organic land care and organizations working together can pool resources to gain funding and educate more young people.
“These kids are the next generation and it’s important to connect them to the environment,” he said. “I like working with people and sharing what I’ve learned in my own life. It’s my passion for the environment and passion for people. This is not just a job for me - I go home and practice this in my own yard, it’s just part of my life.”
A native of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Hinrichs grew up exploring the woods, ponds and fields of his rural environment as well as visiting museums, art exhibitions and cities. This well rounded exposure fueled him with an appreciation he now shares with his students and professionals in the organic land care field.
“My sons, aged 8 and 10, asked me how they can make money recently and I recalled as a young boy collecting newspapers and selling them to this factory, by the pound, that would turn them into flowerpots. I’d make pretty good money,” he said. “Then there was the summer I rode my bike to this condo complex every day to mow and weed perennial beds. I was a young entrepreneur and I want to instill that in my own sons and the students I work with.”
For 20 years, Hinrichs has worked in public horticulture, designing and installing gardens in Connecticut and Massachusetts, utilizing his degree in landscape architecture from UMass Amherst. He has served on the boards of the Ecological Landscaping Association and NOFA Organic Land Care Program.
Through his own business, Dig In It Inc., he offers design consultation and is presently designing and installing rain gardens and stormwater management systems. One project is with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s Region 1 Laboratory in Chelmsford, Mass. to install rain gardens and bioswales and integrate organic practices including native vegetation throughout the property’s five acres. The laboratory boasts a LEED Platinum Certified building as well.
Hinrichs is also working with the Worcester Youth Center’s students to design and build two rain gardens this summer.
“My goal is to help connect kids and people to the environment, get them invested in it and see the fruits of their labor,” he said. “I try to get people to see that work can be part of your life. If you practice sustainable and organic practices, it affects every part of your day and is so beneficial and fruitful.”
The Learning Prep School’s greenhouse and nursery facility is open to the public Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. and Saturday from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. through June 8.