Gardening behind bars

Find out how horticulture is helping prisoners get back on the straight and narrow

The state of the UK’s prisons has become a hot topic in recent times, with frequent news of overcrowding, violence and reoffending rates. A recent report from the Prison Reform Trust found that rates of death in prison have almost doubled in the past decade, with levels of self-harm and assault at the highest levels ever recorded.

One prison bucking the trend is HMP Styal in Cheshire. This all-female facility has a variety of initiatives going on behind the scenes to up-skill prisoners to prepare them for life back outside the prison walls.

Among the timetabled sessions for maths and literacy is the opportunity to get involved in horticulture. Depending on where skills are needed, prisoners may find themselves caring for Styal’s outdoor space or getting involved with various different gardening projects. And it’s changing lives.

‘After discovering horticulture at HMP Styal, one former prisoner went on to study for her Horticultural Level 1 certificate and their level two in floristry upon release,’ says Richard Heys, designer and horticultural trainer.  

‘She’s now working for a massive garden centre and is a fantastic ambassador, actively promoting her journey of how horticulture helped to turn her life around.’

Designing a show garden

One project at HMP Styal that plants the seed for horticulture sees prisoners design a show garden. For the past seven years, the prison has worked with inmates to create a garden at the RHS Flower Show Tatton Park to be in the running for an RHS medal.

‘More than 40 women helped us (with fellow designer Audra Bickerdyke) to design a Back to Back Garden for Tatton Park in 2019,’ explains Richard. ‘They put forward their ideas and we worked this into the shape of what became the Equilibrium Garden.’

‘Three prisoners came to the show and helped build the garden. They were all from different backgrounds – one worked in a gym, the others in a kitchen and hairdressing. When we started, they didn’t know the difference between a spade and a shovel, but moving 37 tonnes of soil soon changed that.’

‘Initially, I think it was quite overwhelming to be faced with a plot of bare mud and knowing they needed to build a garden. There were a lot of times they thought they couldn’t do it. But, with a bit of encouragement, they really engaged, working as a team and it was great to see them blossom.’

Equilibrium was an oriental-themed garden that offered a peaceful and tranquil space to encourage mindful contemplation, rest and meditation. A surrounding bamboo enclosure gave the garden a sense of safety and intimacy, while rocks and paving stones were used throughout the garden to represent mountains climbed in life and milestones reached.

‘It was a garden to promote harmony, balance and tranquillity,’ said Richard. ‘A celebration of what can happen with positive change. The garden looked brilliant and it won an RHS Bronze medal – a fantastic result.’

‘Women who work in the gardens report feeling better in themselves, they’re sleeping better and they feel more confident... it makes a huge difference'

While a show garden may last only a week, the skills and benefits gleaned from horticulture can last a lifetime. Along with learning about different plants and landscaping techniques, the skills learnt through horticulture can boost self-esteem and develop vital interpersonal skills. As Richard explains, gardening behind bars gives women that much-needed boost to succeed.

‘At HMP Styal, women have to do some form of purposeful activity – whether that be work or an education programme,’ he says. ‘For those involved in gardening, it doesn’t mean they’re out there sunbathing. We have 16 acres, seven polytunnels and a huge glasshouse that need to be looked after.’

‘Women who work in the gardens report feeling better in themselves, they’re sleeping better and they feel more confident during social interactions. It makes a huge difference.’

See also

Meet the staff and prisoners at HMP Hull and discover how gardening has helped transform lives.

Get involved

The Royal Horticultural Society is the UK’s leading gardening charity. We aim to enrich everyone’s life through plants, and make the UK a greener and more beautiful place.