Two of the most important factors in making this project possible were flexibility and commitment to a core vision. We knew that we wanted to install a functional organic garden at the jail, and teach people the skills involved along the way. That vision is now fully realized, although the outcome appears to me a bit different from when I began.
I started with a handful of “learning objectives” that seemed straightforward enough. To design and build a compost system, teach men who are incarcerated about composting, teach workshops on organic gardening, support the installation and facilitation of the organic garden and it’s 1-credit GCC class.
I was very lucky to have made an ally in Mark Leonard, who teaches GED programs at the jail, and is the shop teacher at the High School where I also work. Mark and I hit it off right away, and we decided to integrate my “workshops” into his Monday and Friday night Community Construction classes, a perfect fit all around. Very early on, we realized that the implementation of a compost system would be more complex than it seemed, with a lot of concern about pests and aesthetics. We looked at our budget, and decided that it would be more cost effective, sanitary, and pleasing to the eye to purchase a pre-built composter that would take the place of one built on site.
That was the idea that we started to work with, and as soon as we were about to order a state-of-the-art composter to be delivered, we decided that our origional garden location, inside the main perimeter fence, was not ideal. We relocated the garden plot to outside the fence, which allowed for easier access, more sunlight, and other benifits all around. It did however leave us with the challenge of an exposed garden. The back acerage of the jail is quite exposed to wild garden-loving animals of all sorts, including the stomping and pooping grounds for the Sheriffs K-9 unit.
We decided that a solid fence for the garden would be ideal, and that it would be a good initial project for the classes. This essentially took the place of the composter, both financially and temporally. We only had so much money, and so many classes to work with, so we went with our top priorities and worked forward from there. During these Monday and Friday night fence building classes, I was integrating lessons about composting and gardening along the way. It worked out well to have many of the men from those classes to have a head start on the planning and organizing of the GCC garden class to come.
By the time we had the fence up, we were left with a few sessions that we devoted to building the raised beds, and terra-forming/landscaping to level them into our sloped sight. This was quite a project with solid ledge about 2 feet down, and a very wet spring that left us with heavy, wet soil. It all worked out, and by the time the GCC class was to run, we had everything in place, and a great group of men who were committed to the project, as well a learning a lot about garden prep and installation.
Having spent so much time around the jail, I was used to the flow of things by the time Charlie showed up to help teach the first GCC class. What I’m referring to is things like having inmate count start right at the beginning of your class, and the need to just wait the 15-20 mins. (of your 1.5hr class) for it to wrap up. Or the fact that your materials are in a locked room, and the only CO with the key has gone home for the day, so you make do with what you have, ect. These are things that you come to compensate for if you work there full time, but for an adjunct teacher it can be unnerving and out of the ordinary. Anyhow, it was good for me to help guide the class along, and Charlie went as far as to label me a co-instructor. The Thursday night classroom sessions were great, as they essentially consisted of me and Charlie talking about our passion for growing food with stories and questions and answers. We all got to share about what draws us to want to grow a garden, and how that positively effects everything around us.
The first Sunday 10a-4p class was a continuation of the landscaping work, the bed building and the planting of a 5 blueberries and an apple tree. It was all very straightforward with plenty of wheelbarrow hard work and breaks to learn and plan along the way. The second Thursday was when we really started getting into the good stuff of planting charts and trellis design, etc.
By the time the second Sunday came around, I had spent a lot of time acquiring resources–plants, seeds, mulch, compost, building materials, ect. This was a lot of work, especially for myself who is a primary bicycle commuter. There were many trips back and forth trying to carry a bale of hay on the back of my bike (I quickly realized the desperate nature of such an endeavor and opted to use the car I share on occasion).
We ran the class on one of the nicest days of the spring, few clouds and 75 degrees all day. We split off into two crews: one working on soil and planting, the other on trellis design and construction. This was great as there were some of us who are more skilled and interested in the infrastructure of the garden, and others who were more into the horticultural aspects of the project. In the end we got to survey all of the entry points, as we switched up the groups a few times, and we were all working next to each other anyhow.
In the end we wound up with an amazing garden. Six beautiful raised 4×8 cedar beds, custom wooden trellises, and high quality planting starts from Just Roots. We brought in 4 yards of compost/loam mix for the raised beds, and mulched the entire garden with straw. It turned out very pleasing to the eye, and the black chain link fence that we built ties everything in quite nicely. There is talk about incorporation the fence into a trellis base for annuals or grapes this season or next.