TEN Years, hundreds of men, 1,000s of flowers

This month marks my tenth year teaching horticulture to minimum security men at the Boston Pre Release Center (BPRC) in Roslindale.  The program has evolved to teaching the Master Gardener Curriculum which I have designed and tweaked over the years.  We have met EVERY Wednesday for the last 520 weeks!  Hundreds of men have attended the classes, some for a few weeks, most for a few months, some for a year or more.  The garden is a teaching garden more than a production garden however over the last couple of years thanks to our ever growing turkey population (34 this year and, NO, we do not foster these guys!) we have become a garden for things that turkeys do NOT like!  It seems they don’t like a lot of flowers so we have become a real production garden for flowers.  Every week during the growing season we harvest flowers to donate to visitors to the BPRC.  It’s so nice for the men to be able to offer a plant or a bunch of flowers to their family and friends who visit on Wednesdays.


These flowers from last year will bloom again and be ready to be given to all kinds of strong women on Mother’s Day this May. The pride is palpable when we bundle up the flowers and display them in the visiting room to be taken home.

Yesterday in class we read SEEDFOLKS by Paul Fleischman about a fictitious community garden with each chapter written in the worlds of a different person from a different culture.  The men read with eagerness, reluctance or not at all.  Some proudly stood to read, others shared one pair of reading glasses that were missing one arm and were taped together. One man stumbled over the words and was helped by others, another man’s reading was so melodic it entranced me.  Another student left and when he returned his neighbor graciously told him what page we were on.  One student who is an ever present participant in class declined to read at all.   Another student who can barely stay seated in class because of attention issues read the most chapters aloud and was centered and still while reading.  After reading he hopped up and left the room as usual only to return a few minutes later to ask to read again. Who knew when I walked into the room yesterday what grace I would find when I asked 6 tough guys to read a young adult book about flowers.  I suppose “I” did since that’s why I keep going back every week, every month, every year.







Give back what you are able to give


These last few months in the classroom have been really pleasant.  Not being outside is always a challenge but I continue to bring the natural world inside and plan lessons around the seasons.


In November and December I foraged ivy, hydrangea blossoms, pinecones, rose hips, bark….  Week after week on Wednesday mornings we made wreaths to give away to visitors, 13 some weeks, 17 another.


The talk revolves around what the season has to offer and using foraged matter and recycled supplies to create beauty and gifts to share with visitors.  The wreaths were received very well and one recipient said she loved the wreath as it aged and made a dry scratching noice when she opened her door everyday.  Her children wanted her to take it down because it was old and she responded “Would you take me down when I am old?”


In December and January we potted up paper whites by the dozens.  Purchased bulbs but recycled pots and pine cones, leathery hellebore leaves and dried flowers all created a swirl of beautifully scented winter joy.


Using what nature provides and finding lessons in every season makes the classes informative, positive, hopeful and productive.




Raspberry Propagation

One major lesson in the Maintenance Collaborative Master Gardener Curriculum is Propagation.  Learning to take one plant to make many is a skill necessary for any gardener.  From separating tiny baby bulbs on muscari and garlic from their mother bulb, making leaf cuttings of house plants, digging up and dividing hosta roots, collecting seedlings of self seeding herbs like nepeta, oregano and cilantro to planting raspberry canes the men learn many of the ways to produce more plants from what we have on hand. If the students understand how a plant reproduces itself then the he begins to understand how to provide maintenance to plants.  The more we understand the full life cycle of plants the better we are at caring for those plants.  As Ray says, “the education of a gardener”.

First tidy up existing bed of weeds and last year’s dead brown growth.img_5451

Next find some thick healthy green canes, this year’s growth.img_5449

Cut the canes to pencil length and put in water for a good drink.img_5448

Prepare a new bed.img_5452

Insert canes, a few for the turkey family, a few for the drought and a few for us.img_5454

Sit back and enjoy, until one week later we find adult deer tracks!img_5558

and fawn tracks…img_5557



Hilarious.  We will keep planting “one for them and one for us” until there are plenty for all.

Permaculture and Drought

Massachusetts is in a severe drought this August.  When the three new students looked at the garden today it was with a great lack of luster.  What they saw and what I saw were divergent sights.  The excitement I had to demonstrate to them the bounty in the garden was a pleasant surprise for me.  They got it and what could have been a real dud of a class turned into the four of us talking, discussing and working hard to tidy a jewel in the raw of a garden.

It all started when one guy grabbed a bunch of clover he was weeding and said, “The leaves are shaped like a heart so I can eat it!”  I quickly looked to make sure he wasn’t ingesting something like foxglove and saw that it was common pesky yellow blooming clover, and yes, edible indeed.


Before I knew it we had not only pruned the raspberries,


tidied the herb gardens,

weeded galore, edged large portions of the gardens as well as harvested a big yellow bucket of mature oregano blooms.


I couldn’t decide whether the chartreuse color was more wonderful or the scent of the oregano of a season spent in the sun.

Within each task we completed there was a lesson and this group of students responded with chatter, tasting, smelling and questions and comments.  A fourth inmate actually came out to just watch which is always nice too.


We decided to take photos today of all the perennial things in the garden, that are drought tolerant, turkey tolerant and thrive side by side with the weeds.  Despite how awful the strawberries look I was able to demonstrate their prowess in the June garden.

The self seeding nature of dill and cilantro offered another lesson on annuals that keep coming back once they are planted if you let them mature.  We haven’t planted dill or cilantro in years but it comes back with gusto each spring.

The mint and the nepeta were swarming with white butterflies enjoying late summer nectar and they became a crucial lesson when one man asked if something was wrong that there were so many white butterflies.  Ah! The joys of an open air classroom!


The August rhubarb also offered its lesson of perennial food.  Not much to look at today but you should have seen it in May.

So with the lot we are given we find hope and success in the permaculture that is just there in front of our noses if only we have the time to see it, the open minds of inmates to appreciate it and the gratitude to embrace it.  Today was a refreshing class despite the drought and the heat.  Nature’s demonstration of it’s reserves for the future is remarkable.



Weeds of Change

The biggest lesson in the garden this season is the abundance of things in bloom albeit things not intended.  So much effort goes into so many things and sometimes the things right in front of us are the things we really want but cannot see.  We are in a drought and things planted have died but the things that thrived are so beautiful.

IMG_4932This my friend is a bucket of weeds.  Seemingly, pesky in the wrong place at the wrong time additions to the garden.  Funny thing is, they are drought tolerant, native and edible plants as well as really pretty. Above are chicory, mint and Queen Anne’s lace.

IMG_4939Above we added daylilys and tansy, both edible as well.  This big bucket with at least 150 stems went into the visiting room to cheer visitors to the Pre Release Center.  It looked like it could have been installed in the State House lobby!

So as I look around at the students and the garden I see great things right in front of me despite the drought.

IMG_4927Drifts of flowering oregano add fragrance to the hot breeze.

IMG_4933Bouquets and bouquets of flowers despite the parched grass.

Let the weeds that self seed be the weeds of change and let us indulge in their answers.

Thank you for following this blog as I teach this program of organic sustainability to men who need job skills, life skills and beauty in their lives.





June Blooms

IMG_4601I always find it crazy the way garlic and strawberries do their show at the same time. Usually plants seem to know when to shine together, like tomatoes and basil or rhubarb and mint.  But, alas, today we harvested strawberries and garlic.  Another reminder to live and learn next to things that have little in common but the world around them.

The students picked 5 or 6 institutional peanut butter containers of strawberries last week and the same this week.  The first year we gave up complete hope on a strawberry harvest due to the turkeys and then WOW we get a gorgeous harvest.

We have developed quite the permaculture garden at the Pre Release Center Garden, all thanks to many challenges we have faced, little water, turkeys, only one morning a week to tend the garden as well as a desire to work with what we have.  It has been a real lesson in going with what works.  The things we are tending come back each year without our seeding, planting or watering.  They are raised organically so they are very healthy and they are used by the site which is about as local, healthy and sustainable as you want to eat!

For weeks the men have harvested cilantro, sage, rhubarb, thyme, strawberries, chives, mint and each week I encourage them to eat the Johnny Jump Ups and the chive blossoms

IMG_4418…  soon we will have dill self seeded from last year and about knee high now.  The next crop on the horizon is the raspberry patch with many hard little rock like berries ripening in the June breeze.

Today we picked enough mint, cilantro, sage, chives and garlic to give to the kitchen for a pasta dish being made for the entire center.  I call that success.  I call learning how to grow perennial fruits, herbs and flowers a real hard core life skill.


Every week we harvest buckets of flowers to put into the visiting room for family and friends.  It is such a proud feeling for the students to put the flowers on the tables and know they will bring joy to visitors.





Last Autumn we planted 100s of bulbs and this week we harvested them.


The students made 25 bouquets for visitors.  A couple of buckets went to the Emerald Necklace Conservancy Office to give away to visitors there as well.

If you are ever at 125 The Fenway on a Wednesday and stroll by around lunchtime to visit,  you might just see some flowers there to enjoy yourself.

Teaching with beautiful results.