New Garden Society

PHOTOS BY MICHAEL PIAZZA

Every spring is a beginning, and every spike of green that rises above the earth promises hope that summer will come again. It’s a gray March day and the small garden space of the Massachusetts Treatment Center in Bridgewater is mostly bare and uninviting, surrounded by metal fencing topped with coils of razor wire. But to the two women who started the New Garden Society, this little patch of earth has almost limitless potential.

A short time earlier, eight men, imprisoned in this medium-security facility for sex offenses, sat in a classroom and listened intently as Renée Portanova and Erika Rumbley described soil sample results from the garden as part of the intensive gardening course that the New Garden Society offers in several Massachusetts penal institutions.

“What can we do to improve this soil?” asked Rumbley as the students studied the results that show the prison garden needs more organic matter. “Add more compost,” one suggested. Another man mused that breaking the compost into smaller pieces might help.

By the time the discussion moved on to garden pests, several were eager to discuss the previous summer’s experiences with Colorado potato beetles and hookworms and how to eliminate them. And all listened intently to the two women and listened respectfully to their comments. When the program moves to the actual garden in late April, the men would be ready, relishing the chance for fresh air and, as one said, “to get my hands in the dirt.” By harvest time, lettuces, tomatoes, squash, flowers and other vegetables will be part of the men’s own diets and given to local charities. Flowers from the garden will grace public areas of the center. Meanwhile, in the still-nascent garden, only a few iris stalks show as Portanova, Rumbley and a visitor look out. 
“Oh, look,” Portanova exclaims excitedly: “crocuses.” Sure enough, lavender crocuses peek out from the edge of the empty flower bed. Spring—with its underlying hope—is on its way.

The New Garden Society sprang from the resilient hope that growing things can change lives—even the lives of those behind bars. Portanova, quickly joined by Rumbley, started the organization in the autumn of 2013, first thinking they would teach a classroom course for just one season. But the Massachusetts Department of Correction had piles of requests asking for gardening instruction. After the women starting teaching the first class and realized how enthusiastic the students were for more, they added the summer hands-on gardening component and began to expand the program.

Both women work in horticulture—Portanova is horticulture manager for the Esplanade Association in Boston; Rumbley is greenhouse manager for Langwater Farm, a certified organic farm in Easton—and both have taught adult gardening classes. But the prison students were the most engaged and hardworking either had ever seen.

More people are incarcerated in the United States than in any other country in the world, and more than 95% of those imprisoned will return to society at some point, according to US Bureau of Justice Statistics. The DOC has 1,500 volunteers who teach or help in programs dispersed over all the facilities in the state. Some volunteer programs are faith-based or deal with substance abuse; others are educational or are geared to culinary arts or other job training, says Jaileen Hopkins, DOC director of program services. The New Garden Society is the only horticulture program. Employment can be a key element in staying out of prison, according to a 2016 National Employment Law Project report, which notes “Two years after release, nearly twice as many employed people with records had avoided another brush with the law than their unemployed counterparts.”

Portanova and Rumbley see gardening as beneficial for incarcerated individuals therapeutically, but perhaps more importantly as a way to employment. Opportunities in gardening and landscaping industries are growing, both say, because the industry is moving to more skilled labor and to more organic practices. “It’s not just cutting grass,” says Portanova, but a need for workers who have training in plant characteristics, identifying diseases, irrigation systems, pruning techniques and even the mathematics needed to order yards of mulch. “Our fundamentals have a lot of concepts that carry over to the field.”

Their six-week winter intensive horticulture program covers botany, soil science, garden pests, diseases, garden planning and landscape installation and maintenance. That’s followed by hands-on work in this garden at Mass Treatment, at Old Colony Correctional Center and a Division of Youth Services facility. A similar program at Bridgewater State Hospital is temporarily suspended while the institution goes through a transition. Portanova, Rumbley and volunteers who are horticulture professionals teach and guide the outside work.

“Fresh food is the focus,” says Rumbley, although flowers and other ornamentals are also grown. Portanova adds that benefits include soft job skills such as finishing a job, taking directives, showing up on time and working as team members. There’s also recognition for a job well done. Windows on several floors of the prison overlook the MTC garden, and prisoners and staff gather to watch the action when the men and volunteers are working there. “It’s a source of pride” for the men, Portanova says.

DOC’s facilities—Bridgewater State Hospital, Old Colony Correction Center, and Massachusetts Treatment Center and an alcohol and drug treatment center—are clustered around a bare parking lot outside Bridgewater. Mass Treatment houses men who have served time for sexual offenses, but have not been determined ready to rejoin society.

There are rules upon rules about going into any prison, not to mention the restrictions on the gardening program itself, all of which the two women patiently take in stride. Portanova and Rumbley must bring all tools and equipment to this medium-security prison to be modified or checked—blades are dulled, soil samples and seeds checked, and no ropes, netting, hoses or poles are allowed—before the program starts each spring. By now, they are accustomed to the rules, patiently accepting that rules sometimes change without notice, and persistently keeping up with multiple forms and emails required. 

A visit to MTC illustrates the tension inherent in these institutions. Walking into the lobby with Portanova and Rumbley, the place is quiet on a midday Monday. A visitor has arrived prepared—no jewelry except a wedding ring, only a license for photo ID, a notebook without any metal binding, a pen with no metal clip, no grey or orange clothing, nothing too tight or too baggy, no sunglasses, no watch. With a guard, we walk through one set of doors that close behind us, go through a metal detector, and then with another guard through another set of doors.

Once inside the classroom, the tension eases. The men, dressed in jeans, gray pants and T-shirts, file in accompanied by a guard. They say hello, and the class gets going quickly with the students telling stories about their experiences the year before—many have taken the course multiple times—and about gardening with parents or grandparents. When asked what they like about the program, several say they appreciate the garden work and the dedication of the volunteers. As one man says: “Being out there, I really appreciated you guys. You made me feel normal. I didn’t feel that sense of boundaries in everyday life in here.”

They also like being able to contribute—last year’s potatoes went to a senior citizens’ center in Bridgewater. And though they complain about restrictions—for example, watering takes a long time because they can’t use hoses and must water with a watering can and only when a recreational guard is available to accompany them—their complaints are mild. Rumbley tells of one participant innovating around the rules against wooden or metal tomato stakes by fashioning poles made of rolled-up newspapers, and how pleased he was that it worked.

The students are allowed to take some vegetables for their own use, and about this they’re all enthusiastic. “Herbs, herbs are the best,” says one burly guy. “I made vegetable nachos—all vegetables: zucchini, broccoli, green onions, tomatoes—it was so good,” says another. “You’re making me hungry,” cries another as they suggest what to plant this year. “Definitely more green onions,” they chorus. “Definitely,” says Rumbley with a smile.

From one angle, the New Garden Society sounds impossibly idealistic: a tiny nonprofit relying on Portanova and Rumbley putting in countless hours without taking salaries; board members and gardening teachers who volunteer their time; and some donations from seed companies, farms, tool companies and others. The time involved stretches boundaries for everyone, and Portanova and Rumbley say they couldn’t do this if they hadn’t recruited their partners to be part of the effort.

But listening to the perspectives of these two women, you see how the vision meets reality. The two women teach and supervise the gardens one day a week and then work their regular jobs the rest of the time. Board meetings, volunteer gatherings and other work get interspersed on evenings or over the weekends. The Department of Correction provides the garden space, materials that aren’t covered by donations and corrections officers to supervise those working in the gardens. Four to six volunteers each season help guide the outdoor gardening, and other professionals come in to teach specific skills. The nine board members work on projects such as grant writing and goal setting. There’s no problem recruiting volunteers, Rumbley says with a smile—“We have to beat them away with a stick.”

Most prisons were built on farmland, and Portanova says, “historically, gardens have been part of prisons” in Massachusetts and elsewhere, sometimes using unpaid prison labor. “In a more contemporary sense,” she adds, “ we have a better understanding of how a relationship to the natural world helps promote a healthier life—not to mention healthier food.”

The link to work is invaluable, she says. “Our profession is approachable, accessible. More importantly, you can make a living at it.” As more gardening professionals have experience in these facilities, adds Rumbley, the more potential there is for hiring ex-offenders.

One source of inspiration has been James Jiler’s work with the GreenHouse program at Rikers Island, NY. In his 2006 book Doing Time in the Garden: Life Lessons through Prison Horticulture, Jiler outlines the job training of the Riker project, funded by the Horticultural Society of New York, which not only trains inmates in the prison gardens but also sponsors post-release landscaping opportunities. Portanova and Rumbley say that under Massachusetts law, volunteers are not allowed to contact prisoners after release, but that rule may be revised in the future.

Both these women describe their path to horticulture as a kind of falling in love. As she drives a beat-up farm truck at Langwater Farm on the old Ames estate in Easton, Erika Rumbley, in her early 30s, tells how she swerved from her plans to become a playwright into farming. She had just started at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, NY, and “the first week I went to a farmers market and introduced myself” to family members at a stand. Rumbley’s family had owned a tobacco farm in Tennessee, later sold for development, but she’d never thought about farming as a career. She began working at the farm stand, thinking it was a sideline. “Four or five years in, I realized it was the most meaningful part of my life.”

Dressed in work pants and boots, her dark hair shoved under a watch cap, Rumbley shows off the piles of compost, garlic shoots and strawberry fields as she tells about years of working in farming, even an apprenticeship to learn how to drive and maintain tractors. Her duties range widely, from greenhouse work to training market workers to writing the farm newsletter. The diversity mirrors her approach to the prison work. “You have to be useful in the best way you can.”

When asked how she got into prison gardening, Portanova, in her early 40s, says her Catholic family was interested in social justice, and she still treasures that. On a chilly day, she leads a tree audit on the Esplanade with an arborist and others. Portanova, a slender woman with a cap covering her ears and wearing a heavy jacket, goes from tree to tree, noting cracks and dangling branches. She fell into horticulture—almost literally—while working in business. During a conference, she saw workers dredging a pond, and was fascinated by the frogs and plant life. She climbed into the pond and began to help, and never returned to business, pursuing horticulture instead. Now her days might concentrate on mulch, supervising volunteers or thinking of creative ways to shoo away Canada geese. The prison work is a way of incorporating social justice into her life, she says.

It takes patience and determination to grow a garden, and volunteers and the incarcerated men who work in the plots of the New Garden Society have to have lots of both. But the rewards can be sweet. By June, this prison garden will brim with the bounty of bright, red strawberries—“bushels and bushels,” says Portanova.

The bounty spreads wide. One participant said that he talks with his mother about the garden every week: “The weeks that we didn’t have the garden were hard because I didn’t have anything to talk to mom about.”

To Hadas Yanay, one of the society’s board members and formerly a volunteer teacher, says working with the society bridged her interest in cultural anthropology and “human interaction.” Staying involved, even though she now works in New York City in a refugee nonprofit, she praises Portanova and Rumbley as “extremely bold, remarkable women.”

The benefits often even carry over to the corrections officers, who have expressed appreciation at being in the gardens. Rumbley tells of being called aside by an officer. “I was worried I’d not followed a rule. He says in a concerned voice: ‘So I have these pepper plants and they’re not doing well.’ Instead of reprimands, I’m being asked gardening advice.”

In a letter, James Rioux, director of Bridgewater State Hospital’s Intensive Treatment Unit, outlined the program’s job training benefits, and said: ”the program is equally committed to cultivating personal growth in the lives of the participants.”

To Portanova and Rumbley, if rehabilitation is the goal of prisons, then it’s important to help these men and others find a way beyond prison. They would like everyone incarcerated in the state to be able to participate. And to the general public, they say that it’s easy to focus on the prison restrictions, “but when you go into the classroom, there are no barriers.” 

Says Rumbley: “Reach your hand in and connect.” 

ALISON ARNETT is a freelance writer, focusing on food and agriculture. She formerly was the restaurant critic and food writer for the Boston Globe, and an editor.