Utah Pests News Winter 2008-09

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Salt Lake County Jail Horticultural Program

By Maggie Shao, Horticulture Agent for USU Salt Lake County Extension.

  The 3-acre Salt Lake County Jail garden is fully organic.
  The inmates have taken ownership and pride in the garden, and work hard to keep it maintained.

Hope is hardly a word one associates with a jail or prison.  There is a three-acre garden at the Salt Lake County Jail for which there is hope.  The Salt Lake County Jail Horticulture Program provides an opportunity for individuals in a “correctional facility” to turn their lives around.  The program started in the fall of 2006 when Sgt. Raelene Eppard of the Salt Lake County Metropolitan Jail Programs, contacted me about starting a garden adjacent to the jail. Sgt. Eppard and I walked the weedy, vacant lot with compacted and nutrient-poor soil, and formulated a plan.  Education and sustainable practices would be top priorities.  The inmates would grow crops without chemicals, to serve the growing interest for organic produce at the local farmers market.

The Salt Lake County Sheriff’s program fully supported the initiation of this program with funds for two tool sheds, a trailer, irrigation supplies, tillers, tools, and seeds.  The work to reclaim the land began with several soil samples that were sent to Utah State University Analytical Laboratories.  The pH and salinity looked fine, but we needed to remove the existing weeds and add a lot of organic matter to improve the soil texture.  After discing the field and tilling in several truckloads of organic compost, we seeded a green cover crop of hairy vetch and winter rye.  Cover crops suppress weeds, build productive soil, and help control pests.  Over the winter of 2006, Master Gardener Kathy Dennis, Sgt. Eppard, and I, selected the variety of seeds and starts, and planned the rows.  In the spring, a large gaggle of Canada geese descended upon our garden, aiding the soil’s organic matter with their “gifts.”

Prisoners that work in the garden today are first interviewed and selected by Sgt. Eppard.  They then must complete 40 hours of classroom training provided by USU Extension Salt Lake County, and pass a final exam.  Those that are successful receive a Utah Gardener Certificate.  In just two years, we have held three trainings and certified 28 inmates.  Master Gardener volunteers are an integral part of the education, working closely with the prisoners and helping them apply what they learned in the classroom to the garden setting, such as weed and insect identification, and recognizing the right time to harvest that butternut squash.

By managing the garden naturally, without chemical fertilizers or pesticides, we meet consumers’ increased desire for local, organically grown produce as well as create a sustainable garden that is relatively inexpensive to maintain, environmentally safe, and encourages beneficial insects.  The garden conserves water and reduces weeds through a drip tape irrigation system that applies water only to the desired plants.  To manage weeds and other pests, prisoners scout the garden regularly and when needed, employ the primary control method: hand-picking.  The garden also generates a lot of compost that is used for new plantings.  This year we installed a hay bale compost system, with the walls of the bin created with hay bales that are easily moved when turning the compost.  We also planted 150 thornless blackberry plants, ‘Chester’ and ‘Triplecrown,’ and are looking forward to harvesting them in 2009.

One of the desired outcomes of the Salt Lake County Jail Horticulture Program was to be financially secure by selling the produce at Pioneer Park Farmers Market in Salt Lake City.  From the three acres, prisoners harvested 17,000 pounds of vegetables in 2007 and 19,000 pounds in 2008.  The majority of the produce was sold at the farmers market, while 10% was donated to local missions and food pantries (a value of $8,160).  For 2008, sales generated over $16,000, to be used to offset the initial investment and further the growth of the program.

We are hopeful and looking forward to another productive year.  The biggest hope for all of us involved in the program is that, from the support of Salt Lake County Sheriff’s department, education through USU Extension Salt Lake County, positive reinforcement from Master Gardener volunteers, and continued support from the community who purchased the produce, those prisoners who have gone through the garden have a chance to turn their lives around.

Some of the bounty from the SLC Jail garden: ‘Detroit’ red beets (left) and a variety of squashes (right).