Project Grow Kicks Off Another Gardening Season with Hands in the Dirt and Hearts in Nature

The English poet Alfred Austin once wrote, “The glory of gardening: hands in the dirt, head in the sun, heart with nature. To nurture a garden is to feed not just the body, but the soul.” At Project Grow we strongly believe that the gardening experience supports the body, mind, and spirit, and we were happy to kick off another gardening season in January.

Although it wasn’t warm enough to venture into the gardens yet, participants still had plenty of opportunities to learn and enjoy fun and engaging activities. Lessons started with an exploration into the relationship between plants and people, and how the different seasons that we experience in New Jersey allow us to grow a variety of flowers, herbs and vegetables in our gardens.

Project Grow’s gardens are located throughout New Jersey at Mercer County Community College (MCCC) in West Windsor and Duke Farms Community Garden in Hillsborough. We also have accessible raised garden beds outside Allies Day Programs including Mercer Day Program in Hamilton, Flemington Day Program in Flemington, and Mt. Holly Day Program in Mt. Holly. These raised beds allow individuals of various abilities, including those using wheelchairs, to participate in the program and experience the joys of gardening. Zoom sessions expand the reach of the program even wider, allowing those who cannot physically visit the gardens to participate in the comfort of their own home.

In addition to providing horticulture therapy, Project Grow gives back to local communities by donating our harvests to food banks. MaryAnne McMillan, HTR, a registered horticultural therapist who has been with Allies for over 13 years, said, “In 2022 we were proud to donate 1,500 pounds of flowers, herbs and vegetables to help our neighbors in need. Our goal this year will be to donate 2,000 pounds. If anyone has extra harvests from their gardens, we will gladly add them to our food bank donations.”

In January, Project Grow participants also enjoyed lessons about birds. They learned why feeding birds is a very important part of gardening and how birds support a garden’s success.

Stuffed birds developed by the Audubon Society were utilized in class instruction. The birds are equipped with technology that allows them to release the sounds that they make in the wild, much to everyone’s delight. “The group had a wonderful time trying to mimic the sound of each bird,” said MaryAnne. “We also worked together to make bird feeders using pinecones. We slathered the pinecones with either peanut butter or margarine and then coated them generously in bird feed. Participants hung the feeders outside of their day programs or took them home to hang on trees and shrubs. They did a great job!”

In early February love was in the air, as participants at Flemington Day Program and Mercer Day Program used dried flowers from last year’s harvests to make potpourri jars and Valentine’s Day cards. The gifts were delivered to Hunterdon Care Center in Flemington, as well as shared with their families, friends, and staff at Allies’ administrative office.

During the month of March, the folks at Project Grow enthusiastically discussed what flowers and vegetables they would like to grow this year. In addition to the excitement of spring and the growing season, it’s also the time of year that participants can watch the Eagle Cam at Duke Farms. The Eagle Cam allows viewers an up close and personal view into the lives of a pair of bald eagles, including the hatching of their eggs and the growth of their eaglets.

In April, Allies’ day program participants started working in the gardens along with our horticultural therapists. They prepped the garden beds, planted the early crops and they kept busy up-potting hundreds of plant plugs generously donated by a local New Jersey greenhouse grower. When there was inclement weather they did activities inside the day programs.

Learning, growing and giving back continues to be our goal at Project Grow, and by mid-May we began making produce donations to foods banks in three different counties throughout the state. Participants harvest the fresh produce themselves and package it for distribution with great care and pride. Extra flowers, herbs and vegetables are donated to Allies’ Wall and Shore Day Programs, and participants and staff also take some home. Our staff has made some interesting and refreshing iced teas with some of the herbs grown, which everyone enjoyed immensely.

Despite the heat and lack of rain during the summer’s heat waves, the gardens and raised beds at the Flemington, Mercer and Mt. Holly Day Programs are doing well, thanks to the dedicated Project Grow participants and horticulture staff who tend to them. We look forward to another successful year.

Project Grow would like to recognize our horticultural therapists; Nick Stryker, Jean D’Amore and Kasey Hamilton who share their passion for the healing power of plants with those we serve, our staff and the local community. In addition, we’d like to thank our part-time staff, Frances A. Pastore and Alex Jaffe who are a very meaningful part of Project Grow.

MaryAnne said, “We are also very grateful to The Karma Foundation and the Garden Club of Somerset Hills for their grants that have made our program possible this year, as well as Wegman’s for donating gift cards that have allowed us to buy supplies for our garden and classroom activities. We deeply appreciate their support of Project Grow.”

Special thanks to our horticultural therapist, Kasey Hamilton, who continues to take wonderful photos of our Project Grow gardens and activities. She really captures the joy of gardening in the faces of our participants!

For more information about Project Grow, or helping to sponsor the program, please email MaryAnne McMillan, HTR at

To enjoy the Duke Farms Eagle Cam, visit:

Allies, Inc. is a nonprofit agency dedicated to providing housing, healthcare, meaningful employment and recreational activities to people with special needs in the communities of their choice. To learn more, visit