In a Highlands backyard cluttered with kids’ toys — a pair of squishy red boxing gloves, a few Frisbees and a random tennis shoe — two teenage boys stand behind a shed with wooden stakes and a handful of screws. Their names are Ben and Franklin.
Most of their friends don’t know they’re here.
“We were kind of reluctant to tell them at first, because in high school it just seems kind of like a lame hobby, I guess,” Franklin says, shrugging and laughing.
Both Ben Cortas and Franklin Alongi are 17-years-old; they are going to be seniors at Atherton High School this fall. And most of their weekends are spent doing typical 17-year-old activities: playing video games (“Skyrim” and “Little Big Planet”), doing homework (they are in biology together) and watching Netflix (currently “Marco Polo”).
But Ben and Franklin have also turned an unexpected shared hobby into a community service.
“So what we’re doing is we’re trying to reach out to the community and build gardens for people who just — for various reasons — can’t do it themselves,” Franklin says.
The idea first came up a few months ago while they were texting each other about their respective gardens.
“And I work close to 20 hours a week and he runs cross country and track,” Franklin says, gesturing to Ben. “It’s kind of hard to have time together and I think this is just something we could do that’s a little different than just playing video games — we do do that, but this is a little more productive and fun to do together.”
Soon after, the pair printed off flyers for “Ben and Franklin’s Garden Services.” Under black and white clip-art sketches of a tomato and bell pepper, they wrote: Our services are FREE! We ask that you pay for any materials we need (wood, seeds, dirt). The labor we provide, however, is free of charge.
They handed out about 150 flyers — so far, 10 people have replied.
“We definitely had certain groups of people in mind when we put out the flyers,” Ben says. “We are working with some folks who had gardens when they were younger, but now they can’t physically do the labor and would like tomato plants, or they would like to grow some cucumbers.”
They also thought about new parents with young kids at home.
“You know they have to work, care for their kids,” Ben says. “They don’t have the time to build a garden, so we’re helping them, too.
But in starting this service, Ben and Franklin have received one question over and over again: Why?
Most 17-year-olds aren’t taking their weekends to set up trellises and tomato cages for strangers — so why are they? For Ben and Franklin, the answer is twofold.
First of all, they both have fond memories of gardening when they were little.
“We started out pretty young,” Ben says. “It was very amateur, like I wanted to grow things like cantaloupe and watermelon because little Ben just wanted to grow fruits and stuff. And now it’s more just the standard vegetables and stuff.”
The second reason is something that has developed (or, ahem, grown) as they’ve gotten older. Ben and Franklin tell me that high school is stressful. They have finals coming up, they both have jobs and play sports, and they also have their eye on medical school one day.
According to them, gardening is great way to relieve stress — and they want to make sure their neighbors can experience that as well.
“It’s a good time for reflection and a good time to spend with yourself in the dirt — that sounds kind of ‘hippie,’ you know ‘me and the earth man,’” Ben says, laughing. “But at the end of the day it’s like that. You just can go out in the backyard and dig with a shovel and tend to your plants.”