Saturday, March 28, 2009


Dateline: March 21, 2009


By Charlie Norman

Last week I listened to a National Public Radio interview with Alice Waters (a person after my own heart) talking about her restaurant, Chez Panisse, organic gardening, healthy food, and her desire to see a vegetable garden at the White House. Now, today, March 21st, the national TV news shows are filled with the story of Michelle Obama (another person after my own heart) and a group of D.C. fifth graders starting a garden at the White House!

This is not a new invention. ABC News was kind enough to show newsreel clips of Eleanor Roosevelt inspiring millions of American families to plant Victory Gardens almost seventy years ago. What many people don’t know is that Mary Todd Lincoln used to walk out back and pick fresh vegetables every day when the South lawn was the White House vegetable garden during the Civil War.

As for myself, I’ve been planting gardens in prisons across Florida for over twenty-eight years, flowers, herbs, and vegetables, and teaching hundreds of prisoners how to beautify their environment and feed their families, too. I hope Michelle plants plenty of flowers alongside the fifty-five different vegetables they plan to grow, lessons I learned holding on to my grandmother’s skirt as a child in rural East Texas, toddling along beside her as she tended her backyard garden.

My grandfather, Bebaw, I called him, plowed and grew a potato field that provided us with a staple crop through the winter, but Memaw’s garden produced fresh vegetables every day for months, followed by canning Mason jars of the excess, which filled a pantry of plenty.

Memaw loved flowers and always had colorful blooms. Little did I know, until I was grown and read all the horticulture books, how important “companion planting” is to garden health, repelling harmful insects, and feeding one’s soul as well as one’s body.

I smile at the “new” emphasis on organic, pesticide-free gardening. My ancestors did it for centuries. It would never have occurred to Bebaw to spray poison on his plants. He’d take my Aunt Cherry (fourteen months younger) and me as small children to the potato patch, give us Mason jars, show us what potato bugs looked like, and set us to filling the jars with the bad bugs. We delighted in smacking each one between two rocks, the ultimate “pesticide-free” insect control.

My first garden I planted in a fallow field behind an old chicken coop. Little did I know that my small plot had been a former “chicken run,” highly-fertile from years of “deposits” of organic chicken manure. I was five years old, and even at that age, I liked to do things myself. I shadowed every move Memaw made in “her” garden, but I wanted “my garden.”

We fed Memaw’s flock of chickens (free range, organic eggs, the works) “chicken feed,” which was mostly cracked corn. I picked out a number of uncracked kernels for my garden. I loved corn. I knew nothing of vegetable varieties. Corn was corn. Of course, the “feed corn” raised for animals was much different from the sweet corn Memaw grew, but I’d learn that lesson later.

Memaw had a sack of dried pinto beans in a kitchen cabinet. I scooped a cupful to plant in my garden with the corn.

Weeks went by. The beans and corn grew and grew. No one ever went back behind that old chicken house but me. The corn grew tall, grew tassels on top, and green ears formed on the stalks. Neither did I know at the time that Native Americans had been growing corn and beans together for centuries. I did it by accident.

I didn’t plan on keeping my garden a secret, but every day I’d go back there alone, pull weeds, check for bugs, and admire the plants.

One day at lunch, Bebaw came in and asked my grandmother why she’d planted those rows of corn and beans behind the old chicken house. She didn’t know what he was talking about. Well, I didn’t plant it, he said. Who did? That’s the tallest corn I’ve ever seen. I grinned with pride at the praise.

I thought I might be in trouble when they both looked at me. I did it, I admitted. You did? Memaw and Bebaw were surprised. Where did you get the seeds? I told them. Bebaw smiled. He was pleased. The farming instinct carried over strongly to the next generation.

That was the first of many small gardens I grew growing up. We moved to Florida, and behind the utility shed, I planted a patch of turnips that my mother eyed suspiciously while she hung up wet laundry on the clothes line. When the young plants grew crowded, she told me that if we thinned them, pulled out some, the others would grow bigger, and we’d have enough for a pot of fresh greens.

I planted them so we could eat them. I didn’t really know how to thin them properly, so she did it. Memaw and Bebaw taught all their children how to tend their gardens. Where’s these turnip greens come from, my father asked that night at supper, as he took a second helping. He was a farm boy, too. Charlie grew them out back. Huh!

Burpee Seeds’ business is booming. In this economy it makes sense to spend $70 on seeds and harvest $600 in vegetables. You can do a lot better than that if you know how, take care germinating all the seeds, and saving fresh seeds from year-to-year. I learned that in prison.

I also learned and practiced “edible landscaping” and “camouflage gardening” techniques that work in prison as well as in “free society.”

It took me awhile at Raiford to get permission to have seeds sent in, but when I did, I ordered flowers and vegetables. I intermingled hot pepper plants among the marigolds and zinnias, and most people didn’t even know what they were. When the colorful peppers matured, most people couldn’t believe their eyes. There was enough for anyone to pick a few for themselves, and it certainly made a difference in the bland prison food, to chop up a jalapeno in the noodles and gravy.

I planted vegetables “out back,” and taught other prisoners the nutritional value of fresh radishes, squash, greens, carrots, onions, peppers, and tomatoes. We harvested many a fresh salad.

In some prisons I’ve been in over the past thirty-one years, my efforts were praised, and I was able to plant large, decorative flower beds and also vegetable plots, where I taught interested volunteer prisoners about composting, organic pest control, and other skills needed to plant their own gardens when they went home. Other times, when the people in charge were more negative, I practiced edible landscaping and camouflage gardening.

You’d be surprised at how decorative certain edible plants can be. Chives make a very attractive border. I once grew some beautiful collard plants in between a row of hibiscus shrubs. Chinese vegetables make beautiful, exotic specimens that most people don’t recognize as vegetables. Mizuna greens and komatsuna are very decorative, tasty, and vitamin-enriched.

In camouflage gardening, similar to “square-foot planting,” the vegetables are intermingled with flowers and herbs and often go unnoticed by those who bear any prison food crop ill will.

It never made any sense to me to have such huge expanses of lawns inside the fences that grounds crews spent days mowing each week when we could convert those wasted spaces into productive vegetable gardens that would not only save the taxpayers a lot of money and put the idle prisoners to work, but would provide a continual source of fresh vegetables to feed the prisoners.

I found from my own experiences and those of hundreds of other prisoners I’ve taught gardening to over all these years that growing flowers and vegetables changes people for the better. A psychologist at Raiford years ago studied prisoners who worked in horticulture and found their recidivism rate, how many returned to prison after release, was 11%, as opposed to over 60% of non-horticulture workers. There are multiple reasons I’m sure the experts can explain.
So why doesn’t the prison system catch on and jump on the bandwagon? Good question. It has to come from the top. If D.O.C. Secretary Walt McNeil had an Obama epiphany and decreed it to be, it would be. It makes dollars and sense in more ways than one.

In that same vein, along with Michelle Obama, if gardening works so well as an anti-crime tool for adults, certainly it should be a positive influence on children.

Last year, I put together a community garden proposal for at-risk children and their families in Jacksonville, converting unused city property, lots, or empty spaces as community gardens, mentored by private citizens, funded by donations and grants. It could change lives. “Project Green Grow,’ as I call it, would give underprivileged, at-risk children an opportunity to participate in a positive group activity that would not only improve their diets, but also provide an intervention that very well could keep many children from becoming drug addicts, criminals, and prisoners.
Perhaps Alice Waters and Michelle Obama can inspire millions by their examples. I’d settle for a few hundred to be saved from a life of crime and imprisonment by mine.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I LOVE stories like this. And I completely concur that these programs should be implemented within penal systems as well as fostered within communities on unused space.

There is something downright healing about working with the earth and the amount of knowledge one can acquire with regard to planting, seed harvesting, preparing one's foods is amazing and it's an ongoing, never ending process that brings a true sense of accomplishment.

I don't know your circumstances Charlie, but you are most definitely on a healthy path with this vision.

Best of luck.