Prison Gardens Grow Food and Skill Sets

October 24, 2015

The New Garden Society brings horticulture classes to Bridgewater State Hospital.

Lisa Johnson
Prison Gardens Grow Food and Skill Sets | WGBH | Craving Boston

Over the past two years, eating fresh and local has become much easier at the Conway House, a homeless shelter in Middleborough, Massachusetts, thanks to The New Garden Society—which, according to co-founders Erika Rumbley and Renee Portanova, helps disadvantaged youth and incarcerated adults transform their lives through the art and science of growing plants. “We're building a bridge from state prisons and detention facilities back to the land,” says Rumbley. This year, Bridgewater State Hospital's horticulture program donated between 200-300 pounds of produce, including herbs, tomatoes, cucumbers, spinach, lettuce, carrots, peppers and potatoes. Over 30 families have benefited. 

The New Garden Society facilitates year-round horticulture training for participating patient-inmates at Bridgewater. During the colder months, a classroom-based horticulture intensive brings core concepts in soil and plant science to life, while a practicum trains students in organic food and flower production. Students say the class structure is as important as the content. “I appreciated knowing that somebody cared enough to come in and teach us with patience,” says one participant. “I noticed feeling differently in the garden. I felt a sense of accomplishment, like I was part of something,” adds another.

Prison Gardens Grow Food and Skill Sets | WGBH | Craving Boston

During the growing season, students work in the 6,000 square feet of gardens and greenhouses several mornings each week. Seeds, seedlings and perennial plants are donated by home gardeners, farmers and local organizations. Rumbley says the gardening and farming communities of greater Boston have stepped up to support prison gardens in powerful, concrete ways, and the students have stepped up with enthusiasm. “I’ve met the most engaged adult learners of my career,” says the gardener. 

Rumbley isn’t the only one who sees the benefits gardening programs can bring to prisons. She cites James Jiler's book "Doing Time in the Garden: Life Lessons Through Prison Horticulture" as proof. In the book, he discusses a year-long horticulture therapy program, where participants had a recidivism rate of 26 percent compared to 49 percent for those who had not.  

This season, The New Garden Society will grow over 1,000 pounds of food on the grounds of various state prisons and youth centers. “We’ve found gorgeous soils—many state prisons were formerly farms—that we’re pleased to return to production,” says Rumbley. Harvests are eaten by students, donated to local food pantries, or cooked in the cafeteria. This season, students donated over 100 pounds of potatoes to local food pantries.

But according to Rumbley, it’s not just recipients who are benefitting from the harvest. “In the gardens," she says, "students discover memories from our pasts and skills for the future. ”

Lisa Johnson writes the lifestyle blog Anali’s Next Amendment. Follow her on Twitter @AnaliFirst.

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