By: Renée Portanova
Over the past three seasons, we have witnessed the effects of budget cuts within the Department of Corrections, but our programs really started to feel it last season. Our programming relies heavily on the collaboration and availability of Recreational Officers (rec. officers) at the prisons we serve. They are our escorts when we are facilitating programs, and chaperone participants into the garden while responsibilities are performed on ‘off-program’ days. We think of them as colleagues, and the coordination of our programs rely on their involvement.
At the inception of programming in 2013, Bridgewater State Hospital had five rec. officers on duty during our program time. Officer V. ran programming in collaboration with us, while the remainder managed other daily recreational responsibilities. With adequate staff coverage, programming went off without a hitch, and participants made it outside several times a week to water, weed and maintain the garden.
Since then, staff has been reduced to just two rec. officers, causing access to the garden during ‘off-program’ days to be near impossible. Staff limitations have caused the productivity and aesthetic of the garden and, quite frankly, the morale of the gardeners to suffer. With limited access to the garden, seedlings were swallowed by lambsquarter and ragweed, or weakened by inadequate watering.
In response, The New Garden Society came up with a strategy for minimizing maintenance needs in the garden. The renovation of the garden aimed to reduce weeds, reduce watering needs, and organize the garden, delineating pathways from beds.
We can’t solve the larger issue of reduction in staff, but we have been able to teach and implement known methods for reducing garden maintenance, boosting productivity and spirit.
Our recipe for a lower-maintenance garden:
Apply wood chips to pathways to reduce sunlight for weed seeds.
Plant more perennials, especially those resistant to drought.
Sheet mulch beds rather than disturbing the soil (and weed seed bed).
Water deeply and less frequently.
Add organic material (such as compost and leaf mulch) to the soil, helping to retain moisture and build the soil food web.
Work with maintenance staff to combat weeds in neighboring areas in a timely manner.