By Blair Thomas
David Keith bends over and palms the eggplant dangling below the fat green leaves.
“This one’s about ready to be picked,” he says. “I’ve been most looking forward to the eggplant, they’ve been some of the last vegetable to grow. I don’t think I’ve ever tasted an eggplant.”
Keith is out at 7 a.m. working in his garden, just like he has been every day for the past four months. He was one of three inmates at the Rutherford County Adult Detention Center who planted the Garden of Hope in March 2011. They dug up and tilled the land, planted the seeds, hauled five-gallon buckets to water the plants and pulled countless weeds. Now, in August, eight inmates are part of the program, and the gardeners commit around three hours each morning working to see their garden grow.
Keith wanders down the next row of plants and crouches down in front of a tomato vine. Running his fingers over the leaves, he frowns. “See these spots here?” he asks, pointing. “These spots aren’t supposed to be there. This tomato plant has caught something.”
Before March, Keith knew nothing about gardening and had no experience growing vegetables. But now he can easily pick out a diseased tomato plant.
“I can’t begin to tell you how much I’ve learned out here,” Keith says. “And only half of it has anything to do with growing vegetables.”
Of the eight inmates, none have a background as gardeners.
“We’ve had a landscaper, a guy who poured concrete, a mechanic, a bricker,” says Arthal Minter, the current coordinator of the Garden of Hope project. “We didn’t need gardeners. We needed men willing to put backbreaking hard work into this. And they all bring their different skill sets to help in this garden.”
Garden of Hope was started by a partnership between the Rutherford County Sheriff’s Office and Middle Tennessee State University. They were awarded a $1,700 grant from the Agriculture in the Classroom program, in conjunction with the Tennessee Department of Agriculture, to help foster the project. Inmates have to apply to be in the program, and they have to commit not only to working in the garden daily, but also completing a series of classes on gardening and plant diseases.
“Half of the program is classroom work,” Minter says. “It’s the most important part. The guys have to read gardening books, learn about what the plants need to be healthy. It isn’t just about spending time outside; they’re learning skills they can use once they leave this place.”
Helping Minter teach those skills, MTSU horticulture professor Dr. Nate Phillips spends one morning each week in the garden with the inmates checking the plants’ progress and answering any questions they have from their classes.
“They’re eager students, all of them,” Phillips says. “They want to succeed at this – to see the fruits of all of their hard work. It’s an extremely rewarding experience for them to see the product of months and months of work.”
Phillips joins Keith next to the sick tomato plant in the garden, fingering the same leaves. “What do you think it is?” he asks the inmates who gathered around the plant.
“Looks like blight,” Keith says.
“Could be. It could also be Septoria. It’s often mistaken for late blight because the spots look the same,” Phillips explains. “But see how the tomatoes don’t have any spots? And it hasn’t been too damp lately, which is a factor for late blight. So I’m leaning toward Septoria.”
He promises to bring a copper spray to treat the plants the following week, which should cure the tomato plant.
These disease treatments and other gardening supplies have been difficult to get for the program, Minter says. Often, she brought in supplies from home or purchased supplies she needed with her own money.
“I borrow sometimes from friends and neighbors, often I find myself buying things because I know how bad we need them, and we don’t have the funding to get the supplies,” she says. “We were very lucky earlier this year to have a tiller donated to us.”
When the group first started digging up the land in March 2011, they only had shovels and a few rakes. For three weeks, the inmates turned the ground by hand with a shovel and a hoe, and carried buckets full of dirt across the field to a dump site. Plants were watered by hauling five-gallon buckets of water across a field because they didn’t have hoses that would span the distance.
“We called ourselves the ‘bucket brigade,’ ” says David Vaughan, another member of the original three inmates in the program. “We didn’t have work boots, so we wore out the shoes we came here with. In the beginning it was hard. Real hard.”
But working that hard for something and seeing the final product is one of the most rewarding experiences, Keith says.
“We’ve spent all these hours working out here, but we’re making something,” he says. “It’s become kind of symbolic to me. We sowed the ground and laid the foundation for these plants. It kind of reminds me of being here in this lockup. We’re out here working and teaching ourselves not only a skill but a discipline and a routine that we can take with us when we leave.
“And that’s the most important part, because it makes us think ahead to when we’re leaving, and what we’re going to do with our lives from there.”
A New Growing Season
The 2012 garden has received further funding from MTSU, with a lot of help and support from Phillips and Dr. Gloria Bonner, assistant to the university president.
Minter is still guiding the program and still borrowing gardening tools from her neighbors. This year, they’re adding okra to the list of other fruits and vegetables: squash, tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, beans, cantaloupes and watermelons.
Some of the produce is used for meals in the detention center’s kitchen, and some is donated to local food banks and homeless shelters.
All of the eight inmates in the program in July 2011 have now left the Rutherford County Detention Center and moved on. The program has all new members who, just like last year, began tilling up the land for their garden in March.
“They’re working hard and already seeing it pay off,” Minter says. “You won’t hear me call them prisoners or inmates. They’re my guys. My workers. They’re gardeners.”