Planting seeds of change


By: Elisabeth Noe (Behavioural Counsellor EIFW)

Photographs by: Bobbi McCaskill

Over the past three years, Edmonton Institution for Women’s (EIFW) gardening project has blossomed. What started as a small patch of vegetables has grown to over a dozen raised boxes, a medium sized plot, a few greenhouses, and composting stations—thanks to a group of offenders with green thumbs.

In 2019, a small garden was started at EIFW’s Structured Living Environment (SLE). Each women’s institution has an SLE, which is a unit designed to provide a higher level of intervention and interaction with staff to support women offenders with mental health needs. The units also help them learn to be more independent and take on more personal responsibility. The women were eager to learn about plants and to understand the basics of how to start a garden.

Photo of the garden, with several different plants.

The behavioural counsellors at the SLE spearheaded and organized the gardening project. After attending gardening workshops, the women enthusiastically started seedlings in early spring, and planted them several weeks later. Gardening invited the women to be patient, caring, and recognize that a garden responds to the elements of its environment—just like the women who reside in EIFW do.

Gardening brought the women together, as they worked on planning, planting, and weeding the vegetable beds alongside each other and with staff.

“Having this garden does so many things. It brings women, who would normally have little in common, a common goal. And no matter who they are, they can see the results of their labour and enjoy the success,” said Primary Worker Jamie Thompson. “It also makes an otherwise stark environment a bit more pleasant for everyone, including staff, inmates, and rabbits.”

Planter full of pink, yellow and white flowers.

The lasting impact of gardening is significant. It is an effective mindfulness activity that is good for the soul. It starts with preparing the soil, then planting the seeds. The women nurture the seeds and care for the plants as they develop into something amazing. Watching a plant go from a shoot with one or two small leaves to a larger plant with an abundance of foliage is joyful.

The gardeners wait with bated breath for the flowers to emerge. Once this happens, the pollinators join in the fun. Then, the women spot what they have been waiting for—the fruit. Tiny at first, but over the next days and weeks, the fruit grows and develops—sometimes doubling in size overnight. Each day, the women watched everything grow. At last, they harvested the bounty and shared the spoils of their garden.

“I was there when the inmates made their first garden salad from the vegetables they grew,” said former warden Rob Campney. “For some of the women, their garden was the first time they had seen where the food they eat came from, and that to me was truly amazing.”

boxes of lettuce and other vegetables cultivated by residents at EIFW

Boxes of lettuce and other vegetables cultivated by residents at EIFW

Those involved in the gardening project are grateful to Rob for not only encouraging and supporting the gardening projects, but also for providing the resources to expand the gardens from the SLE to both the general inmate population and the minimum-security units.

In the second year and third years, the garden was expanded with gardening boxes and greenhouses made by those participating in the CORCAN employment program. The skills the women at EIFW have acquired will significantly increase their work opportunities when they return to the community. The creation of the gardening boxes and greenhouses contribute meaningfully to the principles that govern corrections for women.

One of the greenhouses made by the CORCAN participants

One of the greenhouses made by the CORCAN participants

“Women have learned how a garden has needs similar to their own; it requires nurturing and room to grow. Behavioural counsellors have taken a task that many of us have experienced in our lives and brought significant meaning to the women with complex mental health needs and problematic behaviours,” said Manager of Intensive Intervention Strategies B. Cameron. “Warden Campney’s support gave the women the opportunity to experience success in engagement and interpersonal development.”

The gardens created in 2019 were not the first at EIFW. In the 1990s, a flower garden was planted, called the Vision Garden. Over the years, it was neglected, but as interest in gardening flourished, attention turned to revitalizing it. Jasmin, an offender participating in the CORCAN program, began working in it, removing all the weeds, turning the soil by hand, and planting several species of flowers for the general population women and staff to enjoy.

“Having the opportunity to work on the garden and be a part of turning it from something that looked sad and forgotten into something beautiful to be enjoyed by all is a great enjoyment,” said Jasmin. “Walking past it each day, now makes me smile with pride.

Close-up photo of red flower in the garden.

Jasmin’s hard work has not gone unnoticed. As the women’s interest in gardening increased, so did the number of flower beds. Each house in general population has beds out front that are full of flowers native to Alberta, including wild roses. The general population inmates have also been cultivating plants, such as chives and tomatoes. SLE residents enjoyed seeing how the flowers and vegetables they planted in the spring grew. Their efforts were rewarded with a bountiful harvest this fall.

Many thanks for the wonderful support of A/Warden Lillian Kordic and the Interventions team at EIFW for supporting the women in this endeavour that continues to grow and bloom in many ways.

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