It’s 9.00am, I walk through the doors and am welcomed by a security guard. This is the first time I have started my workday with a full body Xray, a duress alarm on my belt and a meander around a series of kitchen gardens with a slight feeling of apprehension. On this day however, the kitchen gardens are located at Middleton Prison. A prison just outside of Castlemaine. Today, I’m here to learn about a seedling program “Community Plants Program Us2You” that sees prisoners grow seedlings that are then distributed throughout the community. I am met by a Tafe teacher Lloyd who will escort me safely through the gardens. Lloyd works within 3 different prisons and spends three days a week at Loddon and Middleton. ”As the Horticulture teacher within prisons, it is a special privilege to see prisoners give back to the community and learn both work and life skills, while getting their hands dirty growing seasonal vegetable seedlings”.

I see a series of self-catered cottages where prisoners are responsible for preparing & cooking their own meals. Attached to the side of each cottage is a small kitchen garden. With a multicultural contingent, the selection is varied, including a mix of Kale, Asian greens, herbs, and root vegetables. Prisoners are provided with an opportunity to embark on a Certificate ll in Horticulture.

Since 2014 Loddon Prison and Middleton have been running the Community Plants Program, a community partnership between Bendigo Kangan Tafe, the prisons and the wider community. The program provides an opportunity for prisoners to get first-hand experience in propagating, growing, and harvesting. The end game is an opportunity to walk away with a Certificate II in Horticulture. The ideal outcome is to provide the skills and knowledge required for prisoners to grow and use produce and/or be able to find paid employment within the field upon leaving.

Prisoners are often in the final stages of their sentence and therefore being prepared for a life back amongst the community. In addition to kitchen gardens, there is a central garden – including a new bush tucker program, created in partnership with the Mungadal Co-operative – a community education program. Whilst the bush tucker garden is largely dormant at this time of year, I could still crinkle river mint between my hands and smell the beautiful light and heady scent. A greenhouse and a series of planter boxes round out the central garden.

St Mary’s Public school, Swan Hill

Over 5 years, more than 200 prisoners have taken part in the program. The Community Plants Program grows a range of seedlings to planting stage. Once the seedlings are ready to be transferred to a garden, they are gifted to many public spaces and community gardens.

Since its inception, the program has gifted over 27,000 punnets of seedlings. The seedlings are made available twice a year in readiness for autumn and spring planting. The Old Church on The Hill has been a grateful recipient. The Old church on the Hill is a space where community comes together to share food, plant food, and celebrate culture. “We have been eating pumpkins this season in our community kitchen grown from seedlings supplied by Loddon Prison & Middleton”. They received their second batch of seasonal seedlings at the beginning of summer, beautiful healthy plants that came packaged in handmade recycled trays.

“There is a lot to do before the seedlings make their way to the community,” said Lloyd. Sustainability is front of mind. Plastic milk cartons from the kitchen are cut up and used as punnets, whilst recycled timber, kindly donated, is used to make timber trays for transport. The demand is so high now that staff and some local cafes also provide their used milk cartons.

A portion of the seedlings are used to collect seeds at the end of the life cycle, so that the prison has seeds to accommodate the following seasons plantings. During COVID-19, 2020 distributing seedlings was a challenge, they did however still manage to distribute 4074 punnets to 180 public spaces & community groups.

Creative Garden Early Learning Centre, Bendigo

After a tour of the garden, I was introduced to the Industry & Vocational Services Business Officer, Jackie. Jackie feels it can’t be underestimated just how valuable these programs are. “We really enjoy providing opportunities for the prisoners to give back. One day these men will be back in the community and it’s important for us to facilitate prisoners’ reparation to the community.”

Bendigo is a Creative City and Region of Gastronomy; we are committed to centering creativity and gastronomy across all elements of our greater region’s strategy. This project fits beautifully within Pillar 3 ‘Improve health and wellbeing particularly through healthy eating’.