Making dirt in prison
Part of my week finds me in a South Florida prison building gardens. I work with ten men – all elderly and most serving life sentences, or sentences long enough that likely they will die there. The prison administration tolerates their work building a food garden, and apart from permission and a piece of prison ground to work with, gives little else in terms of support. And apart form their lack of tools – they fashion their own out of found items – sticks, rocks, coffee can tops, (a dug-up root system makes a functional rake) – a lack of seeds, starter plants, potting materials and a decent watering system, the biggest limiting factor to growing a garden in prison, is soil. Anyone who has tried digging a hole in South Florida knows that after several inches of topsoil the shovel hits rock. It’s a geological result of land formation here – trillions of crustaceans exposed to thousands of years of falling and rising seas, their shells baked by sun, then solidified by pressure into what is know as oolitic limestone – or what locals call “coral rock.”
Most Miami gardeners know, that initially, to be successful in the vegetable garden, soil must be bought – not found. In this prison, however, it must be made, and soil formation is the biggest task my students face in an effort to supplement a high carb, high caloric diet with fresh vegetables and fruit. Here, on the edge of the everglades where topsoil is practically absent, building and planting a simple 10ft by 4ft bed is a process that can take up to a year.
First, the ground must be chipped away with a sharp instrument, usually the rusted top of a coffee can, a sharpened rock and a pair of hands that act as a shovel. The larger pieces of rock are used to make a wall. Smaller rocks are used as fill and mixed with whatever sandy soil is scratched from the surface. Next, food compost is smuggled from the kitchen. Dumped in the beds and covered with dead leaves and grass it will compost for the next month before it is mixed with the mineral substrate. Occasionally, the inmates smuggle in some Everglades silt from a drainage swale in back of their compound. This too is mixed in the bed. And, as the bed evolves a few seeds of papaya, lima bean or cow and pigeon pea, are thrown in to germinate. As it grows the papaya will spread its roots and slowly penetrate and break down the coral rock. The beans and peas will colonize the site adding nitrogen to a nutrient poor soil as well as biomass as a green manure to the soil-forming compost cooking beneath it. More plant debris is added as mulch. This protects the bed from erosion, prevents evaporation and helps with moisture retention. It is critical for the harsh conditions of heat, rain and wind which pound the site much of the year.
After 6-months the product, in a typical bed is an ashen grey substance; it is chalky on touch and quickly breaks apart. It consists mostly of sand and limestone; well-drained and low in nutrients. It will take another year of kitchen waste to produce the sticky enzymes that binds particles together, holds nutrients and water, and makes soil able to sustain healthy plants in a productive garden. Until then, my students plant what they can in the intense summer heat – pigeon peas, okra, scallions and peanuts, the seeds brought in a few at a time – as they go about “doing their time” in the garden.