In­sid­ers’ guide to gar­den­ing

Pris­on­ers at Springhill Prison have built a large veg­etable garden, from which the pro­duce feeds those in need close by.

Element - - Lifestyle - By Adam Gif­ford

The soil in­side Springhill Prison is poor stuff, the grey and dusty dried clay left be­hind when the land was scraped for the build­ings.

But around two of the spe­cial units, the earth is grad­u­ally turn­ing darker as com­post and worm tea is added to newly-dug veg­etable gar­dens.

Guard Phil McEvoy saw the ef­forts pris­on­ers were mak­ing to grow plants, so tried to help by mak­ing a sim­ple worm farm.

“When it rains the worms crawl over the con­crete paths, so I col­lected them up and put them into a cou­ple of 20 litre plas­tic con­tain­ers,” says the burly Merseysider, who joined Cor­rec­tions three years ago af­ter run­ning pubs and take­aways.

Some­one higher up heard about his ef­forts, and money was found in the re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion bud­get to buy two mod­ules of eight Hun­gry Bins from One hung abased Low Im­pact, which went in last Oc­to­ber.

When El­e­ment vis­ited the prison with Hun­gry Bin in­ven­tor Ben Bell, the first thing we saw was a large tray of onions and cauliflow­ers wait­ing to be taken to a food bank or women’s refuge.

As Bell checks the tem­per­a­ture, worm health, den­sity and the mix of waste go­ing in, pris­on­ers come by to dis­cuss progress and pick up any knowl­edge he is able to dis­pense.

“They’re look­ing bet­ter since you moved them into the shade. The worms don’t like it too hot,” Bell says, rum­mag­ing through the chopped up cab­bage leaves with his gloves un­til he can pick up a good hand­ful of com­post worms.

“I can’t see any mag­gots. That’s good. It smells sweet.”

Some broad beans catch his eye. “I put them in there to ger­mi­nate,” says pris­oner S, who has as­sumed re­spon­si­bil­ity for the unit’s worm farms.

Over by the fence, the soil is heaped into me­tre wide rows and planted with seeds rescued from the kitchens or bought in by guards.

They’re su­per­vised by pris­oner G, an older man who main­tains a strict regime of plant­ing by the moon, pass­ing on to other in­mates the Maori gar­den­ing knowl­edge he learned grow­ing up in the north.

“Those are pe­ru­peru, which came on the Mataatua waka,” he says, point­ing to an area where the pur­ple pota­toes will soon start peep­ing out of the soil.

“Things are grouped in the proper days for grow­ing, and not planted out of sea­son. That helps with the bugs,” he says.

When he started the garden, there was only one bro­ken spade to turn the soil. The pris­on­ers now have ac­cess to a ro­tary hoe.

“It’s not about mon­e­tary gain. The gain is what we will take out of it from here.

“This fel­low has a prob­lem be­ing around peo­ple, but he is coming out of that,” he says, in­di­cat­ing pris­oner S. “If you give peo­ple ini­tia­tive, they come out of it.

“There used to be no or­der, no re­spect in this place. Now there is a lot of re­spect and peo­ple are not coming and help­ing them­selves to the gar­dens.”

Over in the next unit, pris­oner R shows us his ex­per­i­men­tal pump­kin patch.

He’s been giv­ing it reg­u­lar sprin­kling of worm tea, and in just one month the plants are stand­ing a me­tre tall, with an abun­dance of pump­kins grow­ing on the vines.

He’s now ready to douse the rest of the gar­dens with the mirac­u­lous sub­stance.

“They call me the worm whis­perer,” he says, stand­ing by the bins.

“I name ev­ery one, but I can’t keep up. They re­pro­duce overnight.”

He says while only about half a dozen in­mates work on the gar­dens, ev­ery­one is re­spond­ing to the growth.

“Ev­ery­body walks around. They come out ev­ery morn­ing and see some­thing dif­fer­ent is hap­pen­ing.”

McEvoy says by keep­ing pris­on­ers oc­cu­pied, the gar­dens help re­duce ten­sion in­side. The re­spon­si­bil­ity also teaches peo­ple work and life skills that will be use­ful on their re­lease.

Switch­ing from com­post heaps to the Hun­gry Bin worm farms also al­lowed the units to get on top of their rat prob­lem.

Bell would like to see a lot more Hun­gry Bins in the prison. He has de­signed the sys­tem to be mod­u­lar and scal­able, so it can deal with large vol­umes of or­ganic waste.

“There are nine skips a week go­ing out of this place, half of it or­ganic. The worms can eat that.

The Auck­land Coun­cil premises at Gra­ham St has shown what can be done on an in­sti­tu­tional scale with 20 bins turn­ing the waste from eight kitchens and 500 staff into com­post, cut­ting the land­fill waste coming out of the build­ing by 25 per­cent.

Bell sees the Hun­gry Bins as part of wider vi­sion to cut down en­ergy waste and pre­serve nu­tri­ents.

His work in the film in­dus­try did not chime with this up­bring­ing on a life­style block near Whangarei where his mother was proud to serve up meals grown en­tirely on their own land, be­fore go­ing to art school to study pho­tog­ra­phy.

He went to work at the Eco-Mat­ters en­vi­ron­men­tal trust on house­hold en­ergy schemes.

That’s when he de­cided the worm farm he had at home could be im­proved on, so he made one from a wheelie bin.

Friends asked for them, and he found a source of bro­ken bins and sold on Trademe. When the stock­pile ran out, he took the plunge, rounded up in­vestors and set up Low Im­pact to man­u­fac­ture a more re­fined de­sign, with a grant from Waitakere City Coun­cil’s waste min­imi­sa­tion fund.

“The Hun­gry Bin breaks some of the cen­tral tenets of worm farm­ing. You are not sup­posed to com­pact them, but that’s what my bins do, forc­ing the worms to come to the sur­face where they like to feed,” Bell says.

Mak­ing a bet­ter worm farm wasn’t the end of it. Bell has set it up to be en­ergy ef­fi­cient. Dis­man­tled, the bin fits into a box that meets postage lim­its. For ex­port, 400 of them fit into a sin­gle con­tainer.

“The idea from the start was to re­duce bar­ri­ers to up­take. Part of the vi­sion is to get peo­ple to un­der­stand why they need to do this, and then re­move the bar­ri­ers that stop peo­ple com­post­ing.” He says a prison is an ideal lo­ca­tion for worm farm­ing. “Cor­rec­tions has room to spare, peo­ple will­ing to do it and space for gar­dens. It’s a vir­tu­ous cir­cle.”

“There used to be no or­der, no re­spect in this place.”

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