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Digging deep

Phoenix Gardeners put down roots at Her Majesty’s Penitentiary

By Rochelle Baker

An innovative arts-based curriculum that combines mindfulness and creativity with hands-on gardening and landscaping training.

That’s what a groundbreaking collaboration between Memorial University faculty, students and staff with community partners and inmates at Her Majesty’s Penitentiary (HMP) now offers people in the prison.

Dr. Jan Buley, assistant professor, Faculty of Education and the group’s convenor, says it started last fall, when the Research Exchange Group on Horticultural Therapy at the Newfoundland and Labrador Centre for Applied Health Research hosted a presentation by a group of therapists from the Insight Garden Program at San Quentin Prison in California.

“Lucky for us, one of our members happened to be a mental health and addictions counsellor who was working at HMP at the time. When Susan Green asked us if some interested inmates might watch the presentation by videoconference, of course we said yes.”

Inspired by the San Quentin Program and the wealth of research the group had uncovered in support of prison gardening programs, a working group started planning a gardening program at HMP.

A sunflower in the foreground with male prisoners in the background, back on. The prison is shown in the far ground.
A sunflower in the San Quentin Penitentiary in California.
Photo: Submitted

They have been meeting weekly ever since with a group of inmates and mental health specialists at HMP to get the project started.

Dr. Buley says that it was important to the group that the real leaders of the project were the inmates themselves.

“And so the inmates created their vision for the program and gave the program its name – the Phoenix Garden – a name that they said reflected the idea of new beginnings, of rising up, of building a fresh new life.”

The inmates are now designing a logo for the project and are caring for the plants provided to them by Memorial’s Botanical Garden.

Three hand-drawn images based on the phoenix rising from the ashes symbol.
Logos designed by the inmates for the garden.
Photo: Submitted

Tim Walsh is the nursery manager and horticulturist at the Botanical Garden.

“The Phoenix Gardeners, as they have come to be known, learn a little more each week about mindfulness, about keeping a journal, and, most importantly, they are learning a lot about plants and how they grow,” he said.

Everyone involved is learning, says Dr. Buley, including discovering that talking about gardening is similar to talking about life itself.

“In one of our sessions, the inmates sang about what it takes to make a garden grow. And after that, as a kind of proof of concept, everyone got to see an amaryllis flower that they planted themselves emerge bright and strong from a small pot of soil. In prison. In the dead of winter. It was our first Phoenix Garden success.”

A whiteboard with a Buddha image and notes written in green marker.
Inmates’ notes from the brainstorming session to create a vision for the garden.
Photo: Submitted

The Phoenix Gardeners have a lot more work ahead of them. Plans are underway to purchase and build a cedar greenhouse in the prison yard and to grow vegetables, as well.

The inmates will take responsibility for cultivation, weeding, watering and feeding in the garden. They will then harvest the food they produce and share it with their fellow inmates and with the wider community.

A book cover with two hands cradling soil and and a seedling with "Putting Down Roots" in text at the top.
Tasha Roberts, a member of the Phoenix Garden team, designed the cover of the curriculum guide.
Photo: Submitted

“In this way, the inmates will have an important chance to see how they can make a meaningful contribution to each other and to their community,” said Dr. Buley.

The Phoenix Gardeners have a website and are working in partnership with the John Howard Society and with prison officials at HMP, all of whom are committed to making the dream garden into a reality, by raising funds for the greenhouse and equipment. If you would like to donate to the project, please visit here.

Sun Valley Greenhouses, a financial supporter of the greenhouse (moveable in case of a new prison in the coming years), are helping with the construction. The group hopes to launch the greenhouse and outdoors activities on June 30.

“The Phoenix Gardeners at HMP have a chance to connect to the natural world but they are strengthening other bonds, too – to the self, to each other and to the community,” said Mr. Walsh.

A man with a beard and grey hat and t-shirt stands in front of flowers in a greenhouse.
Tim Walsh in one of the Botanical Garden’s greenhouses.
Photo: Submitted

As extra incentive, participants who complete the curriculum will receive a certificate certifying their vocational training as gardeners.

The group is looking forward to seeing how the Phoenix Garden at HMP, like prison gardening programs around the world, has potential to end ongoing cycles of incarceration and to create a safer and healthier community for everyone.

“As all gardeners know,” Dr. Buley said, “Time spent nurturing a garden creates not only a beautiful outer world, but a brighter inner world, too. We think gardening and nature-based therapies have the potential to transform lives.”

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