Art Show

Cleaning out my folder I found a stack of old drawings from the men.  Check out the happy bumble bee!

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SEEDFOLKS continued

The second crew finished SEEDFOLKS yesterday.  Even though I have read this book and listened to the men read it for years one passage was new to me this time….

It turns out my greatest gift as a teacher is what I learn from the men.  Before class there was a little delay and the men were late and grumpy and trying to engage in nonproductive ways.  One guy, though, gently brought the whole class back by saying to another man, “OK we understand now, let’s read the book.”  We all kind of looked at him and thought “now there’s an option.”  I thanked him and pointed out what a great skill he had for leading the group out of a dead end and heading us back towards our goal.  It made a great difference, suddenly we were all peaceful, relaxed and ready to read.  Then he read this passage and the circle was complete.

“But the garden’s greatest benefit, I feel, was not relief to the eyes, but to make the eyes see our neighbors.”


Today I had a fantastic meeting with Laura Winig of Venturing Out, Inc.  She runs a great prison entrepreneurial program here in Boston.  It is similar to our Maintenance Collaborative in that it meets once a week for 3 months.  Her program is neat because it teaches inmates how to become entrepreneurs.  Volunteers meet with the students for 12 weeks and help them with a business plan for whatever business the person is interested in pursuing upon release.  Laura and I discussed our programs and how I am trying to get a Master Gardener accreditation for the Maintenance Collaborative.  We decided to look into doing a collaborative garden entrepreneur program.   Will keep you posted!


This week in class we read aloud the book SEEDFOLKS by David Fleischman.  I had both crews so there were 16 men for 6 books.  Woops.  Need to buy more books.  They took turns reading and sharing.  Many of them declined to read, others read more than once.  SEEDFOLKS is a “read aloud in 2 hours” kind of book.  The book is fiction and has 13 chapters written through the eyes of 13 different people, young, old, male, female, white, black, Asian, Hispanic, Indian, Jewish … who all stumble upon an abandoned lot in Cleveland and turn it into a thriving community garden.  I chose it for class because it is easy to read and easily understood. The characters are witty, honest, earnest and real.  They discuss racist feelings, teen pregnancy, drugs, violence, sadness, loneliness, prejudices, and most of all the joys and healing of gardening.

The prison garden is considered a community garden so we are able to get seeds and compost from the City of Boston each spring via the Boston Natural Areas Network (BNAN).  Right about now we order several truck loads of compost to be delivered in April.  We get all kinds of seeds too and the BNAN always throws in some seeds we did not ask for.  One year it was gorgeous orange marigolds.

SEEDFOLKS is a great read this time of year.  It provides hope of spring, glimpses of green images and the assurance of the goodness of community gardening.

Winter Propagation

I dug up 3 big clumps of my prized Primula, more lovingly called cowslips.  Gertrude Jekyll taught me that to propagate Primula is easy.  I brought in this big bucket of Primula to illustrate to the men, hands on, how to gently tease apart the tender roots and pot them up for winter.
The divided plants will spend the freezing months in the cold frames but emerge ready to pop into the ground come spring.
We divided these last year in class and then planted them at the prison garden.
Did you know that Primula are evergreens?  You can really see that now that it is December.
I then had the men draw what they had done.  A fantastic way to understand a plant is to divide and draw.

Moss Conservation

Prison inmates help researchers cultivate threatened mosses

By Adelheid Fischer

July-September 2005 (Vol. 6, No. 3)

When the early woodland people of North America needed diaper material, they stripped mosses from trees, rocks, and downed limbs. Packing the plants snugly around their infants, they created a cushioned layer that could absorb ten times its weight in liquid.

The ability of mosses to sponge up moisture has not been lost on modern industry, particularly the horticultural trade. Mosses find their way into shipping material for drought-sensitive bulbs and plants. And with a little watering, they add long-lasting green accents to decorative floral wreaths, planters, and hanging baskets.

Indeed, so widespread is the commercial use of wild-collected mosses that some U.S. forests are undergoing the botanical equivalent of strip mining. According to results from a study released in 2004, the U.S. floral industry alone consumes up to 37 million dry kilograms of moss each year—for both domestic purposes and export. Patricia Muir, the study’s author and a professor of botany and plant pathology at Oregon State University in Corvallis, calculates that this amount is enough to fill some 2,400 semi trucks, most of it coming from the Pacific Northwest and the Appalachian Mountains. Although she cautions that these figures are ball-park estimates—few accurate records on permitted moss collecting are kept, and illegal harvesting is rampant—Muir speculates that the commercial value of mosses can add up to US$165 million annually.

If Nalini Nadkarni had her way, this wholesale collecting would cease. Nadkarni, a forest ecologist at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, would like to see moss farming replace collecting as the main source of moss for the horticultural trade. And she has found an unusual base of operations for her experiments to develop moss cultivation techniques—a minimum security prison.

Nadkarni has joined a growing chorus of botanists who warn that the overcollecting of mosses is doing serious harm to forest ecosystems. Anecdotal reports by scientists and land managers in the Pacific Northwest describe whole swaths of forest that have been stripped of mosses, particularly those that lie within easy reach of roads. The small body of published research on mosses suggests that these plants may play a vital role in forest ecosystems by capturing nutrients and regulating humidity and water flow. Moss mats also provide nesting habitat for the threatened marbled murrelet (Brachyramphus marmoratus) and are home to some 300 species of animals, primarily minuscule inhabitants such as mites, springtails, rotifers, and water bears.

Once removed, most mosses are slow to recolonize their former sites. Recent studies by Robin Wall Kimmerer at the State University of New York, Syracuse, show that some species recover at a painstaking rate of only one percent each year. Decades, if not more than a century, may pass before they regain their former plushness.

“It really is time that we start learning how to farm [mosses] just like we do corn and tobacco and everything else,” charges Nadkarni in a recent New York Times interview. To help realize this goal, in 2004 Nadkarni secured grants from the National Science Foundation and the Conservation Trust of the National Geographic Society.

Then she and students from the Forest Canopy Lab at The Evergreen State College teamed up with master gardener Raymond Price. A volunteer at the Cedar Creek Corrections Center, a minimum-security prison near Littlerock, Washington, Price had already organized a successful project to grow organic vegetables at the prison. In November 2004, with help from graduate student Adrian Wolf, he and several inmates turned a semi-enclosed shed on prison grounds into a moss laboratory.

For their experiment, Nadkarni obtained permits to collect four species of moss from nearby Olympic National Forest. They divided the wild-gathered plants into clumps and set them on perforated plastic trays. Project organizers trained inmates to carry out the logistics of the experiment, from rotating the trays and keeping notes on environmental conditions to watering the plants with throughfall rainwater collected from the forest.

Mosses are ideal plants for growing in a prison environment. They are hardy, take up little space and require no sharp implements for cultivation. And horticulture projects are an easier sell to prison administrators than are other kinds of programs because growing plants has been shown to have multiple benefits for incarcerated people — from offering therapeutic value to fostering development of post-prison job skills.

But raising mosses has proven far more tricky than growing corn. Despite the fact that mosses possess one of the most ancient lineages on Earth, little is known about methods for cultivating them. To date, the Cedar Creek mosses have survived captivity, but their slow growth rates limit their promise for commercial production. Future experiments call for stimulating faster growth with measured doses of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. Farmed mosses that respond well to such inputs could be test-marketed through nurseries. If market responses are favorable, the prison’s greenhouses may one day reduce collecting pressures on wild mosses while providing inmates with marketable skills for life outside prison walls.

In the meantime, Price points to one proven measure of the project’s success. To date, he says, nearly two dozen inmates have cycled through the program before being released. “I still meet graduates on the streets of Olympia who come up to me and tell me how great the program is,” Price says.

About the Author

Adelheid Fischer is a freelance writer based in Phoenix, Arizona.