Christchurch Men’s Prison is increasing the size of the vegetable garden where prisoners grow produce for local charity, Help for the Homeless.

The prison has gifted almost 7000kg of produce to Help for the Homeless over the past two years. The food boxes are turned into meals for the homeless and families in need in the local Christchurch community.

“Prison gardens are an important rehabilitation and training opportunity for prisoners,” says Christchurch Men’s Prison Residential Manager, Graeme Hunter. “The men involved in the gardens are gaining qualifications for employment, while making a difference for a vulnerable community group.”

The men are working on ways to increase production within the confines of the unit.

“This can pose a challenge over winter, but they are doing what they can within the unit space and conditions available to try and increase production through the difficult growing period of April to August,” says Graeme.

The garden team aims to grow as organically as possible, with no, or minimal use of chemicals.

They produce their own compost and use organic materials from the prison pig farm and kitchen.

Kieran* is one of five men currently working five days a week in the garden and has been working there since August last year. He has recently completed his Level 3 National Trade Academy Horticulture Certificate.

Coming from a farm, the long serving prisoner is enjoying the opportunity to be working the land again.

“I am pretty good with crops, but hadn’t had much to do with vegetables before I got involved in this project,” says Kieran.

“We appreciate the opportunity to give back to the community. It means a lot to us all, but especially to the men in the unit who have been homeless themselves, or know people who have been. It feels good to give our time and make a difference for others, and to get outside and do gardening.”

“It’s great to be working in a team,” he says. “We all come from very different backgrounds but the commonality of the garden breaks down the barriers. It gives you something meaningful to do and something to talk about and work on together.”

Kieran has developed an interest in grafting and propagation through his studies and working in the prison garden, which he hopes to continue on release.

A strict crop rotation programme is minimising soil-borne diseases. The rotation has meant the men can experiment with a wider range of vegetables, like Chinese greens, different types of beans, peas and sweet corn.

Other vegetables grown in the garden include Japanese radishes, turnips, parsnips, lettuces, silverbeet and kale.

“We have also established a range of herbs which are also used in the unit kitchen where prisoners are undertaking hospitality and catering training,” says Graeme.

“We are now focussing on increasing production through multiplying plants for more berries and fruit,” says Graeme.  “This is a new skill area for the prison gardeners as we will need to master new skills from cutting and pruning; taking cuttings from blackcurrant and raspberry bushes, dividing our rhubarb plants and caring for our feijoas and lemons.”

“The result of all their endeavours is more produce and more varied crops.”

While growing and harvesting the plants is very satisfying, the men say their real joy comes from meeting the volunteers who come to pick up the produce grown for distribution. Often the volunteers share stories with the prisoners about how their work is making a real difference for the community.

“The Help for the Homeless team who come to collect the produce are always excited to look in the bins, to see what we’ve got for them this time,” says Graeme.

“Last week one of the volunteers said she knew of a family with five young children who were really struggling and she would be able to present them with a box of fresh vegetables to eat.”

“We have been lucky enough to be recipients from the prison vegetable growing programme for a few years now,” says Help for the Homeless Community Liaison Coordinator, Lisa Bosustow.

“I have been for a tour through the gardens at the prison,” says Lisa. “I was very impressed by the way things were run, and the standard of the facility. We have been so grateful for the help we have received.”

“The quality of the vegetables is great, and it’s nice to see that the guys experiment with different types of veges,” she says. “The produce has been used in ways that have been far reaching to our homeless people and others who help us.”

“Having nutritious meals is extremely important for rough sleepers as their meals are taken with what they can get, according to Lisa. “Some go a couple of days without proper food, causing health problems, and hunger also adds to mental health issues such as depression.”

Prisons have a long history of growing produce for charity. Both Rolleston and Christchurch Men’s prisons have long standing partnerships with community food banks. Rolleston grows produce for weekly pickups by the City Mission.

“This is a partnership that works for everyone,” says Graeme. “It is great is see a stony, bony piece of dirt producing so much food, and bringing satisfaction and happiness to so many people.”

* Not his real name.