Growing a Gardening Curriculum

By Joslyn Rose Trivett, SPP Education and Outreach Manager

In 2019, every prison in Washington State has gardens. Most prisons boast extensive plots of food and flowers, some cultivated for their beauty to pollinators and humans, others for verdant rows of herbs and vegetables. These gardens are a source of pride and solace; they are islands of beauty and vitality in an institutional environment.

Two community service crew-members from MCCCW transplant lettuce for Kitsap Conservation District’s GRACE project. Photo by Keegan Curry.

For as long as Sustainability in Prisons Project (SPP)’s Evergreen employees have visited gardens in Washington State prisons, we have heard incarcerated gardeners ask for more information to refine their gardening skills. They want information on plant cultivation, healthy soils, garden placement and sunlight, beneficial insects, and pest management, and many other topics that would help them be better gardeners.

WCCW hosts extensive ornamental and vegetable gardens, lovingly tended by horticulture students and TAs. Photo by Joslyn Rose Trivett.

A relatively small number of gardeners are also formal garden students—they get horticulture instruction from Centralia, Peninsula, or Tacoma Community College—and those opportunities are highly prized. In other cases, mostly in other states, volunteers from Master Gardeners or other non-profit organizations (e.g., Insight Gardening Program, Lettuce Grow, Rikers Island GreenHouse) bring gardening education into the facilities. These classes are sought after and celebrated by gardeners.

There are many more gardeners whose needs and interests aren’t yet met—they haven’t been able to get into a class, their prison is too remote for volunteers, or they already received a class and they want to learn more. Not only in Washington, but across the country, there are staff and incarcerated gardeners who crave more information and instruction.

Gardeners tend beds in the early spring at Monroe Correctional Complex. Photo by Joslyn Rose Trivett.

We know from the successes of peer-led education in other SPP programs, like Monroe Correctional Complex’s composting certification, technician-led workshops, and Roots of Success, that peer-to-peer education can work. Given proper preparation and support, peer education can be very effective and empowering.

A new collaboration has emerged to try and meet the requests of incarcerated gardeners, by working together to develop a gardening curriculum based on a peer education model. SPP has found kindred spirits in the Institute for Applied Ecology and the Oregon Food Bank. Even more valuable, incarcerated individuals and staff at two prisons in particular, Monroe Correctional Complex and Stafford Creek Corrections Center, have volunteered to help write, review, and pilot the new curriculum. These incarcerated gardeners offer their technical gardening expertise, their lived experience in the prison system, and their insight into what incarcerated gardeners need to teach and learn. Their input is integral to creating a successful peer-led curriculum.

Oregon Food Bank’s Seed to Supper provides the new curriculum’s core. It will be enhanced and augmented by prison-specific edits and added chapters. In this 2017 photo, Seed to Supper students discuss gardening in the SCCC classroom. Photo by Ricky Osborne.

With so many authors and stakeholders, forward progress can be slow; it takes a lot of work to create and finalize plans, and to review and finalize products. The huge upside, though, is that the collective may produce a program that can be used across the state and across the nation.

To give the many partners and steps involved the recognition their due, we will write a series of stories on the gardening curriculum. We want to cultivate something practical, useful, and appealing—a curriculum worthy of a gardener.

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