Highlands Today staff
AVON PARK — Spread over 5 acres are greenhouses teeming with plants of all kinds, a man-made island with a bridge fashioned out of bamboo, manicured greens and even a creek meandering along.
What’s even more incredible than the oasis of green is where it is - on the grounds of the Avon Park Correctional Institute.
When Highlands County Extension Service Master Gardener Charlie Reynolds visited the prison nursery a few months ago, he was expecting to find some empty lots and grass here and there.
“I was shocked,” he said. “There is not a dead leaf here.”
Fifteen inmates tend to the grounds and the nurseries, which are funded through the Florida Federation of Garden Clubs, said the prison’s correctional officer Tommy Sauls, who runs the program.
It’s the only prison nursery in the state, he said, and has been expanding since orchids were first planted there in the ‘60s.
An 18-year Department of Corrections veteran, he took over about four years ago.
“I already had a knack of landscaping,” he said. “It’s been a learning process, especially with the (plant) cuttings.”
The rest has been easy.
He has had one discipline problem in four years.
“They are self-policing themselves,” he said of the inmate workers.
More than 20,000 plants - from orchids to their popular episcia, a tropical plant that is hard to find in private nurseries - are grown there, mostly from cuttings.
Every year they have two plant sales for the community and also sell what they grow to other government agencies. In the last month, for instance, Sauls said they have given a 1,000 plants to prisons in Okeechobee and Martin County and the Florida Department of Transportation.
While the inmates get plenty of hands-on experience every day, Sauls wanted them to have some kind of landscaping certification to fall back on when they were released.
“It’s something that employers would take into deep consideration or respect,” he said.
That’s when he approached the extension service for help.
Reynolds did a bit of homework and was told the best certification program was the one the Florida Nursery, Growers and Landscaping Association offered.
Over the last few weeks, Reynolds and other master gardeners have been visiting the prison and holding classes.
Since there are no computers and Internet connection in their APCI classroom, they’ve had to print out a lot of coursework - including the textbooks - which otherwise would cost $100 a piece. The FNGLA let them print the books so they could save the cost, Reynolds. Taking the certification test also costs money.
“I’m in the grant mode,” Reynolds grinned.
Since this is a new program, Sauls and Reynolds have been taking it slowly.
“We are winging it,” Reynolds said. “We want to take it one at a time.”
Friday, helping him were Master Gardeners Don Ingram, who is a tropical plant expert, and Master Gardener-in training Bill Dudley.
Dudley, who was visiting the grounds for the first time Friday, said he was “shocked” at how immaculate and extensive it was.
For the inmates, the program is a way to get away from the “elements” of the prison compound and do something constructive.
APCI did not let Highlands Today use their names for security reasons, but one inmate, who used to draw, just started painting and now paints clay pots where some of the plants go.
“Mentally, it gives me peace,” he said.
Some of the pots they paint will go toward a fundraiser the Wild Turkey Tavern holds every year as part of its toy drive.
They also take art requests from people and actually have a popular series of painted pots based on animated cartoon character Betty Boop.
Wild Turkey Tavern owner Kay Reark said last year APCI donated about 30 plants to be raffled off for the toy drive - from hanging baskets to ground vegetation.
“It has added to our fundraiser,” she said.
This year, the prison is going to supply the pots with the Wild Turkey tavern logo painted on it, and Reark said they are still working out all the details.
For a $30 donation, donors can buy a brick for the pavilion and inscribe somebody’s name on it. Sponsors are also welcome.
While the prison nursery is a “well-kept secret” Sauls is trying to promote it in the community, within reason. Their prices are very competitive compared to retail nurseries.
At a recent plant sale, the rain did not dampen attendance, Sauls said. People were still lined up and went plant shopping even though it was pouring, he said.
For Reynolds, the end result of the certification program is the hope of what it might accomplish for the inmates who leave the prison and try to re-integrate back into society.
Friday, he reiterated what the warden said: “If you can stop one person from coming back, it’s been worth it.”