Soothing the savage beast



Inside, the colors are radiant as flowers flourish. Rows of yellow and orange marigolds mingle. Baskets of purple Angelonias and white lilacs hang above them. It is a serene sight behind bars.

Many of us already know that dirt makes us happy, even without the recent scientific evidence indicating that certain bacteria in soil have the same effect as antidepressant drugs—stimulating serotonin-producing neurons in a specific region of the brain.

Therefore, it’s hardly surprising that gardening activities in prison, which involve close contact with soil and plants, have, in the words of one inmate, “relaxed me and taught me patience.”

The horticulture program at the Erie County Correctional Facility in Alden, NY started in 1990, and went on hiatus in 2004. It was brought back this year and already has a waiting list. Prisoners tend a greenhouse and put together hanging baskets. They also undertake landscaping jobs throughout the community—at churches, hospitals, and other institutions.

 They’re mentally active,” [Superintendent Thomas] Diina said. “They’re performing meaningful work. They’re providing a service to the community. I think, overall, it benefits their mental health in that they’re not just languishing in a jail cell doing their time. They have a sense of purpose.”

I’ve never understood why educational programs for prisons meet with so much resistance. Why wouldn’t it be better to release inmates with some kind of skill that might keep them from getting right back on the merry-go-round of crime and punishment? In any case, I’m really glad that this program has been reinstated.

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Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regular radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world, and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at


  1. This article got me thinking about my local county jail and how I could get involved (perhaps along with my fellow Master Gardeners or other interested folks. Thanks!

  2. As a both a gardener and a person concerned about the justice system in the US, it was nice to read this article.

    However, even though I no the intent is good, maybe the article might be better titled, as the it could be construed that the “beast” here refers to an inmate. The correct meaning , derived from a 17th century play, is that music has the charms to soothe the savage breast.

  3. This is a wonderful story. I think many people can turn their lives around given the right opportunity and interest.

  4. We have a variation of this program in Philadelphia called City Harvest.
    With training from The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society (PHS) staff, inmates of the Philadelphia Prison System grow seedlings at a prison greenhouse, and thousands more seedlings are started at neighborhood-based greenhouses run by nonprofit partners. The inmates receive training in gardening and basic landscaping along with valuable life-skills lessons. The seedlings are then transplanted and grown in community gardens throughout the city, as well as in the prison’s onsite garden.

    With facilitation from SHARE (Self Help and Resource Exchange, a food distribution network), the resulting produce is donated to food cupboards.

    PHS City Harvest gardeners grow and donate more than 50,000 pounds of produce each year, helping to feed about 1,200 families per week during the growing season, including residents of neighborhoods with some of the highest rates of poverty and food insecurity in the region.

  5. I’ve long been interested in therapeutic horticulture, but more in the field of physical rehabilitation than economic. This is a great idea, one which I hope is put in place by more and more facilities.

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