Voices of the Bay

Doing Garden Time

Vera Bowen discusses sharing her gardening skills with Rhode Island's adult inmates

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Vera Bowen feels her life has been very blessed which is why she spent many years giving back as a volunteer for hospice and in child abuse advocacy programs. It was her role as then President of Rhode Island Federation of Garden Clubs in 2010 that led her to create with two other women Garden Time, an award winning nationally recognized program for planting and cultivating vegetable and herb gardens with inmates at the Rhode Island Adult Correction Institution: Men’s Maximum Security Facility, Men’s Medium Security and the Women’s Minimum Security Facility.

Originally from the village of Bill Quay, England, Vera completed her university studies before immigrating to America after meeting her husband Kevin, a native New Yorker. The couple has called Bristol home for 21 years. Her then neighbor encouraged Vera to attend a Bristol Garden Club meeting which whetted her interest in all things green. Currently the New England Region Director of Garden Clubs overseeing its six states and 23,000 members, Vera is a Director of the RI Horticultural Society and is a national accredited flower show judge. She has been a longstanding member of the Bristol Garden Club, a volunteer in Blithewold’s gardens and is a past director of RI Children’s Garden Network. To learn more or make a donationto Garden Time check out www.GardenTime.us. Vera is available for speaking engagements and can be reached at
VeraBowen@gmail.com


I am like the nurse whose children always have a cold. I am great at working in other people’s gardens but my own tend to suffer dreadfully because I am so busy. In 2010 I was looking for a president’s project and Kevin who is a Toastmaster had come back from a meeting and had a book Toastmasters in the Prison and I thought if they can do Toastmasters in the prison why can’t they do gardens? I had recently read an article about parts of the country trying to bring back prison gardens and make them sustainable. I thought this might work. I contacted the Department of Corrections and about a year and a half later in 2011 they paired me with Kate LaCouture and Terry Meyer who had also wanted to start a garden in the prison and we formed Garden Time.

Our idea was to introduce fruits and vegetables for better nutrition and to augment some of the inmate’s food. Men’s Maximum has a population of 450, the men in my program are in for life with no chance of parole. Men’s Medium has 1,100, we can’t expect to grow enough so we have an herb garden and with Women’s Minimum there is a children’s garden of vegetables and fruits, a labyrinth of seasonal, annual and perennial flowers, and plans for a walking trail. We began with Men’s Max and met several times with ACI officials. They chose people who they felt well suited for the program. It is a privilege for the prisoners to participate. We met with 11 men in a classroom and discussed the goals and what they expected of us. Each man did a graph of what they would like to see in the garden, some of the drawings were quite elaborate and we created a landscape design using all their drawings. We broke ground in 2011 with a 6,000 square foot section. It is completely organic. We taught the men how to take soil samples, how to read RI seasonal planning charts, know the scientific names and differences between herbs and weeds. The men are involved with every aspect. For the prisoners at Men’s Medium and Women’s when they are released we give them certificates in basic horticultural skills. We know of four women who have gotten jobs in a relating field.

When we started at Men’s Max we didn’t know what to expect from them. In six years I have never had anyone be inappropriate with me in any way. I was told there are fewer discipline problems with the those who participate in the program. They so value it and enjoy digging in the dirt together with us they don’t want screw that up. We have a huge strawberry yield and one year we had so many strawberries the prisoners asked the Captain if I could bring the berries back to the East Bay Food Bank. It was their way to give back. The people we work with trust us so much. It has been gratifying to work with them and see them work so hard. The greatest thing I have learned is no matter what they have done there is goodness in everyone. It has been a humbling experience for me.