A Community Garden For Community Meals

Mike Kane of Alfordsville worked at weeding the garden at the Dubois County Community Corrections Center in Jasper on Aug. 7. The community garden at the facility offers participants a chance to work outside and cultivate fresh produce for the community.

Story by Claire Moorman
Photos by Rachel Mummey

Here are the peppers. The zucchini, or maybe spaghetti squash. It’s hard to tell which is which. Here are a few rows of potatoes, still hiding mostly underground. Here are the green beans. We don’t know what kind they are, so we call them “Tony Beans” because he planted them. And over there are beets. Who eats those anyway?

Richard Kell knows his garden. It’s not just his; the plot belongs to the community in a way — because the produce eventually ends up in the food that Dubois County Community Meal serves its patrons — and everyone takes some ownership. One bright July morning, Kell showed Dubois County Community Corrections Supervisor Tammy Lampert through the rows of dirt and sprouting leaves and budding vegetables and fruits. Kell, an inmate from Princeton who had spent the past year in the corrections facility, was wrapping up his stay with a few months of manual labor.

“Do you need anything else?” Lampert asked him. “We’re good on dust, we’re good on Miracle-Gro?”
Kell responded in the affirmative as he sifted through the supplies in a small shed behind the corrections building. He’s been gardening his whole life. He knows the drill.

“The radishes, they didn’t use the sand like I told them how to use it. That’s why they’re so thick,” Kell said. Other participants, his fellow inmates and friends, had planted the vegetables while he was at his work release job one day. But the garden is a learning process for everyone, and sometimes they make mistakes.

Kell, who has a large garden at home that he was excited to return to after completing his incarceration in late September, knows a lot. It was his responsibility to share the information and pass it down to other inmates.

While working in the garden, Keith Embry of Ferdinand grabbed some tools from the shed at the corrections center on May 18.

The community corrections garden started in 2012 after the idea had been tossed around between Lampert and late assistant director, James Wuchner, for many years. Finally, Lampert ran into a county commissioner and asked for permission to use the empty field behind the building for an outdoor activity for the men and women.

“Last year, we started from scratch with the field,” Lampert said. “The City (of Jasper) donated leaf mulch. We tilled that all in, worked it up and it was great. This year, we expanded.”

Lampert and her team started with a 30 x 40-foot garden and that space has since doubled. The extra space was mostly filled with corn plants. Kell installed dangling metal pie pans around plants to ward off curious deer. The new land was in bad shape owing to a loss of topsoil from the original construction of the building, so some of the new plants did not thrive with as much vivacity as expected.

“I know nothing about gardening,” Lampert said with a chuckle. “I found out in the spring that we should have plowed in the fall, so the backside dirt was not as good. Everybody is still learning. There is a lot of knowledge that can be passed around.”

That’s why Lampert relies on her inmates to provide the input into the garden. Last year, Green Thumb Landscaping of Jasper helped plot which plants should be located where, but this year, it was up to the offenders.

“I want them to have the ownership,” Lampert said. “The guys mapped it themselves this year. I want them to realize that it is theirs, it’s not mine. It’s theirs to succeed or to fail.”

Jeremy Hall, left, and Jeff Taves, right, both of Jasper, worked with others to spread mulch to prepare the soil for planting the garden on May 14.

Lampert and her staff traveled to the similar, but much larger, Branchville Correctional Facility to learn some do’s and don’ts from its gardening program.

“It’s massive,” she said of the Branchville plot. “They have their own compost system. It’s very cool what all they have for the guys to be occupied and make good use of their time.”

Now, the inmates are responsible for maintaining the garden, weeding it, watering it and picking the produce when it is ripe so they can deliver it to the community meal food site on Meridian Road.

Kell and friend and fellow experienced gardener Mike Kane delivered a heavy load in early September.
They bagged green beans, peppers and tomatoes. Kell dug around for potatoes that had ripened in the dirt. He lost a few under the mounds he had made, but there were still plenty to harvest. Above them, the sun was shining. Behind them, the scenic woods were peaceful. It was a perfect day for working outside, both men agreed.

Kell picked a fat green pepper, handed another to Kane, and together the men took big, juicy bites out of the veggies. Kane prefers snacking on the green onions from the garden when he can.

Lampert doesn’t mind if the participants sneak a few bites of the food they’ve grown.

“It’s like with anything. They mean more, they taste better, if you work for it,” she said.

For the community meals organization, working with the corrections folks to provide produce gives the opportunity to make better-tasting and heathier options.

“We are still serving over 100 meals three times a week, every Monday, Wednesday and Saturday,” community meal President Mike Hagerdon said. “That helps a lot."

In the evenings, when dedicated morning gardeners Kell and Kane are at their work release jobs, a new group of inmates takes over the care of the garden. Don Rainey of Huntingburg, Brent “Fuzz” Tobin of St. Henry and Tony Temple of Jasper — the planter of the unmarked patch of “Tony Beans” — take to the field, as is their weekly duty, to water the plants.

Tyler Russell of Huntingburg planted marigolds on the perimeter of the garden on May 18. Marigolds help deter garden pests.

The garden was midway into it second year by the time Rainey and Tobin arrived at the corrections center, but they have taken advantage of its therapeutic benefits. It reminds them of their home gardens, which they take much pride in, they said.

Rainey used to donate much of the produce from his personal garden to others, so providing for the community meal was second nature to him.

“My garden has always turned out pretty well. My dad, he’s the one that passed down the tricks and the trades,” Rainey said. “When I had a place in Huntingburg, I had a garden. I always gave a lot of my produce away. I grew watermelons, cantaloupe, corn, peppers, tomatoes. You name it, I grew it.
With me being a single person, there’s no way I could eat all that.”

Tobin also grew carrots, tomatoes, corn and green beans at his family’s home in St. Henry. He said it was “awesome” when he discovered he would have an opportunity to head outside to work in the dirt while serving his time.

“I did that when I was a younger kid during the summer and we weren’t in school,” he explained. “We were out there in the garden pulling weeds, picking beans or something. It was a  daily chore. I’d go out there and eat the green beans right off the plant. Pick a few, eat a few.”

At the height of the hot summer, Rainey would spend up to an hour and a half in the evenings watering the garden if it hadn’t rained recently. On a late September night, when the air was getting cooler and the plants more withered as they neared the end of their life cycles, he and Tobin spent only a half-hour spraying the leaves — and occasionally each other — with a hose.

 Drake Neal of Huntingburg, right, eyed a row of seedlings to make sure it was straight during the planting of the garden with Tony Temple of Jasper, left, on May 18.

“We go out there and joke around. That’s what it’s all about. Just getting out and breaking the monotony. It’s very monotonous in here,” Rainey said of the corrections center. “(Gardening) is just trial and error. Once you get the trial and error accomplished, it makes you feel good.”

For Lampert, the benefits of the garden have been many for the inmates she cares for so deeply. Her goal was to find a positive way for the men and women — though primarily men have participated so far — to expend their energy and to prepare them to be thoughtful members of society upon their release.

“They’re not bad people, they just have made bad decisions,” she said. “The ultimate goal of community corrections, the reason community corrections even exists, is to give them the tools and the resources to change their behavior so they never get arrested again. Any kind of programs that can benefit them is a good thing. They’re not going to be locked up here forever. Those benefits are going to be what keep them from coming back in.”

The corrections folks attempt to keep the garden as organic as possible. When bugs plagued a few of the plants this summer, Kell sprinkled a mixture of flour, salt and water on them to drive the pests away. Lampert said the garden would not be possible without donations from local greenhouses and hardware stores. The organization has managed to run its produce plot for the past two years at no cost.

Even with all the support, the garden suffered this year because of acidic conditions in the soil and improper tilling, but as Lampert and her team learn more, they will work to improve the field. She said that although the plants did not grow as tall or luscious as they did last year, the hard work of the participants still resulted in donations of “thousands of pounds” of vegetables and fruits to the community meal program. When there is extra food, Lampert gives some to the food bank as well.

“There’s such variety out there,” she said. “They really did well on having a variety of things.”

 Richard Kell of Princeton, right, Brent Tobin of St. Henry and Mike Kane of Alfordsville dropped off a basket of produce to Dubois County Community Meal site coordinator Ron Seger in Jasper, left, on July 6.

To increase participation next year, Lampert hopes to have better communication among all the guards and inmates. The participants meet each fall before planting to discuss which vegetables they would most like to plant. The garden participants are invited to give suggestions about how to improve the yield as well. Rainey said he will throw in his two cents about tilling the soil with eggshells, which provide lime, an essential nutrient. It’s a trick he learned from his dad and working on the family vegetable plot. Although he hopes to be released before next year’s garden is planted, he still hopes it flourishes for the inmates who come after him.

The participants don’t often ask for it themselves, Lampert says, but to her, the most important thing is that they know they are appreciated.

“I really want kudos and props to them,” she said, leaning back in her office chair as she scrolled through dozens of photographs of the workers in the garden, planting, tilling and weeding. She keeps the pictures as a reminder of all that her community corrections family has accomplished with teamwork and a little encouragement.

“It is them. They’re the ones that make or break it. I really want them to get that pat on the back because they deserve it.”

Contact Claire Moorman at cmoorman@dcherald.com.

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