Pa.'s "Roots of Re-Entry" garden
By Dana DiFilippo
The Philadelphia Daily News
PHILADELPHIA, Pa. — Within steps of the Delaware River, six men worked together recently to plant a tree.
But this wasn't an ordinary tree.
And these weren't ordinary gardeners.
In matching orange jumpsuits and denim jackets, the city prison inmates added the latest - an exotic Fuyu Asian persimmon - to a mazelike farm behind the city's House of Corrections.
The City Harvest/Roots of Re-Entry Garden is now four years old, just one of many prison-based job-skills programs that include instruction in such trades as plumbing, welding and janitorial work.
But it's among the more popular programs - and most far-reaching.
Besides teaching inmates job skills from gardening to hardscaping, the program since its inception has grown and distributed 47,000 pounds of organic produce to needy families and thousands of seedlings to community gardeners citywide.
The prison will host a private celebration of the program Thursday, when inmates will show off their garden to city officials, community gardeners and recipients of the garden's bounty.
"It's a beautiful thing to plant something and see it grow," said inmate Larry Brand, 58, who has been in the gardening program for two months. "It makes me feel like I'm giving back for some of the things I did wrong."
Prison gardens aren't new.
Until the 1960s, Philadelphia prisons had a farm, and they canned produce for use by the Philadelphia School District, spokesman Robert Eskind said. Farming continued on a smaller scale for years.
But four years ago, the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society approached city officials with their City Harvest plan.
Besides mastering gardening and landscaping skills to use in jobs or at home, the inmates learn about nutrition and healthy eating, develop an appreciation for community service and help fill the food pantries of city shelters and other agencies for needy citizens, organizers say.
Nearly 20 inmates - men in the morning, women in the afternoon - visit the garden for a few hours every weekday.
There, a PHS expert leads classes on everything from gardening to basic science. Recently, Philadelphia Green's Sharat Somashekara schooled inmates on exotic persimmons and the proper planting of trees. (Fall is the best time. Don't pile dirt too far up the trunk. Mulch after watering; use salt hay, a marsh grass, because it doesn't contain weed seeds like rye straw and won't invite disease as do wood chips.)
The inmates tend plants in more than 20 raised beds outdoors, a greenhouse where plants are propagated, a "hoop house" that extends the growing season and countless perennial pots packed in rows near an employee parking lot.
The garden is a plant-lover's paradise, with such common produce as peppers, tomatoes, grapes, scallions, beets and blueberries to more glamorous greenery as quince, kiwis, Jerusalem artichokes, hazelnut and fig trees, paw-paws and passion flowers.
"Some of them don't even know what organic means when they start," said Correctional Officer Wendy Baxter, who oversees the program's female inmates.
Correctional Officer Tom O'Neal, who oversees the male inmates, agreed: "We live in this fast-food society, and so a lot of them don't get this on the street."
Instead of pesticide, inmates use solarizing heavy black tarp on dormant gardens to kill weeds and their roots. Plants and trees that fall victim to dry rot or powdery mildew serve as an educational lesson.
"Here's our rodent control," inmate Michael Hickey added, grabbing a gray, stray cat as it stalked by.
Inmates also take their gardening skills to Riverview Homes, a city-run old-age facility next-door, where their raised garden beds are the perfect height for residents in wheelchairs.
"This program," O'Neal said, "helps these guys see that they're not in a little bubble. They're actually connected to people on the outside. It gives them job discipline, work ethic and an appreciation for finishing something from start to finish."
Brand wasn't happy when he first got assigned to the program.
"I didn't want it," he said. "It seemed kind of feminine to me. I wanted something more masculine."
But now, he gets downright poetic about his newfound fondness for farming.
"I was watering this really dry bed [recently], and those plants started moving around - they made me feel the life in them. I felt like, for once, I wasn't taking, I was giving," Brand said.
Inmate Reynel Pastrana, 33, agreed: "This makes me want to do volunteer work when I get out."
Prison and PHS officials have big plans for expanding the program.
They plan to partner with Bartram's Gardens to train newly released inmates in landscaping; a pilot program is scheduled to run next year.
They hope to develop an entrepreneurial gardening program. And there's also talk of raising honey bees.
"I don't expect any of these guys to become an organic farmer as a career," Somashekara said. "But we try to offer something for everyone."