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Inmates dig their way to new careers in horticulture

The Issue

The Sonoma County Sheriff’s Department runs a unique vocational education program that teaches horticultural work skills to inmates on five acres near the UC Cooperative Extension office. According to Rick Stern, Adult Corrections Instructor, this is the only program in the state that goes outside the jail to have inmates grow and sell plants while interacting with the public. The program accommodates 20 inmates each day, four days per week. Most of the participants have little or no knowledge of plants, and with only one program coordinator on a limited budget, there were very few opportunities to teach more complex horticultural gardening skills.

What Has ANR Done?

Over a six-month period, six Master Gardener volunteers assisted the program coordinator by securing a grant from the Sonoma County Water Agency and coordinating the design and installation of a large demonstration garden. The garden themes focused on water conservation, pesticide use reduction, and appropriate plant materials for the climate. At the entrance to the facility, the inmates installed a lovely garden that demonstrates the proper use of drought-tolerant plants that need no pest control, that require little maintenance, and that attract butterflies, hummingbirds, and numerous beneficial insects. With direct inmate interaction and by providing UC handout materials, the Master Gardeners have significantly improved the skills of the individuals involved. Inmates then provide good science-based information to gardeners who come to buy plants.

The Payoff

Jail inmates acquire new horticultural work skills from UC Master Gardeners

The several hundred inmates who have been involved with this educational program have learned to identify plants by their common and scientific names. They have learned the growth habits of many plants, when they bloom, flower color, and their water requirements. They also know the differences between habitat plants that may or may not attract various beneficial insects. They have developed garden design skills for drought tolerant gardens as alternatives to lawns, and have learned to interact with customers by helping them select the proper plants for their gardens. Upon release, many former inmates have become employed in gardening or landscaping fields. Some have taken Santa Rosa Junior College horticulture courses and received college degrees.

Clientele Testimonial

"The Master Gardeners have helped many inmates to define a purpose in their lives with this garden." - Rick Stern, Adult Corrections Instructor

“I loved working on this project, because I know that we really helped the inmates. I saw the pride in their work and on their faces and I know that they will continue to help the general public who come to buy plants." - Sandy Metzger, Master Gardener


Supporting Unit: Sonoma County

Paul Vossen, (707) 565-2621, pmvossen@ucdavis.edu