Flower power is helping boost the wellbeing of some of Scotland’s toughest prisoners, finds Sandra Dick

Within its walls are some of Scotland’s most notorious criminals, with murderers, paedophiles, and rapists in their midst.

Yet just beyond locked cell doors, a remarkable garden project at HMP Dumfries has revealed a surprising love of nature, gardening and plants among even the most dangerous of inmates.

On prison ground which until recently was soggy marshland and waste space, a vibrant oasis has emerged; the soothing scent of lavender and mint is in the air, goldfish and carp swim in the newly made pond and a handmade pergola to support climbing plants is at its centre.

Each element, from the meandering paths down to the baby blue shade of the shed and choice of plants intended to help soothe the senses and boost feelings of wellbeing, has been designed and built by a group of prisoners.

The inmates’ attention to detail and enthusiasm for the garden astonished prison staff and the project’s advisor who hadn’t expected toughened prisoners – some serving particularly lengthy sentences – to become as wholeheartedly committed to the gentle pursuit of gardening.

The Herald: The prison gardenThe prison garden (Image: free)

For while parts of the garden’s creation involved physical effort to prepare the soil and make the paths, structures and pond, other elements saw prisoners spend hours examining books of plants, debating colours of blooms, their scent, how tall they would grow and which might thrive best in certain areas.

Some requested certain species of trees and flowers which particularly resonated with them, or sparked memories of people close to them outside of prison.

Others revealed previously concealed artistic skills in highly detailed sketches of how the garden might look, and embraced challenging design tasks, such as plans for the impressive wooden arbore and a dam structure to help divert water and significantly improve growing conditions.

The project was developed by prison staff working with gardening charity Trellis Scotland, which helps create therapeutic gardens intended to support mental and physical health.

As well as working with community groups to create gardens in urban locations, the charity helps to provide green ‘sanctuaries’ in hospitals, schools and care facilities.

Although it has worked with prisons in the past, the garden at HMP Dumfries is the first on such an impressive scale, involving direct input from inmates through each stage, from planning and design to budgeting and construction.

It’s hoped the new therapeutic garden, which sits within the prison’s five acres of grounds, will be used by local community groups as a calming place to enjoy nature and grow plants, as well as by inmates.

The Herald: The prison gardenThe prison garden (Image: free)

The garden is expected to become of particular use among the prison’s group of older prisoners who are less able to take part in physical activities or are displaying early symptoms of dementia.

Built in 1863, HMP Dumfries houses up to 173 inmates. As well as local, short-term prisoners, there is space for up to 135 long-term men who require to be separated from mainstream prisoners either because of the nature of their offence or for their own protection.

The new garden sits close to the prison’s sprawling market garden, where a dedicated team of prisoners help the facilities’ professional gardener to grow a variety of fruit and vegetables for use by its kitchens.

The idea for a therapeutic garden developed from a pre-pandemic project which saw the prison work with local NHS dementia specialists to provide a polytunnel where members of the local community could visit and experience some of the mental health benefits of gardening.

Although the initiative received high praise, it was interrupted by Covid. The idea for a well-being garden featuring raised beds for disabled users, plants chosen to stimulate the senses and encourage wildlife, created by and also used by prisoners then began to develop.

Stuart Pomfret, Head of Offender Outcomes at HMP Dumfries, said: “Prisoners weren’t involved in the original project, but we recognised the benefits of working with people in the community and learned so much during that time that it was clear there was more we could do for the people we look after here.”

Trellis Scotland, which specialises in helping groups develop gardens which promote physical, social and emotional health, was brought in to guide prisoners as they planned the new garden.

The Herald: The prison gardenThe prison garden (Image: free)

Joan Wilson, Trellis Scotland’s advisor for the project said she was taken aback by the enthusiasm shown by the prisoners.

“I gave them a selection of books to look at and asked them to come back with ideas.

“I was blown away by the response,” she said.

“One prisoner in particular, who had seemed to be the least likely, came back with pieces of paper stuck in the pages to show the plants he liked.

“He picked really fantastic, contemporary style plants like Brugmansia (Angel’s trumpet), which unfortunately doesn’t grow well in Scotland.

“He also asked for a mulberry tree because it was his grandfather’s favourite tree in his garden.

“I spoke to the men about their choices, it turned out they didn’t just go through the books and randomly choose this and that, they often picked things that reminded them of something outside of prison.

“There were a few plants that would have been wonderful but would be impractical here or wouldn’t grow well or would grow too big.

“We also discussed how to create a garden that stimulated the senses: different textures, shapes of leaves, the colours of flowers and the sound of rustling.

“One man handed me an A5 size piece of paper which was so well drawn and the detail so nice; it was lovely.”

The six-sided pergola at the heart of the garden was designed and built by the prisoners. The group also created an initial prototype and then meticulously measured the planned structure to ensure it was precise.

Eventually it will support an array of climbing plants, while other areas have been planted to ensure there is a constant bloom of colour and interest throughout the seasons.

An area of raised beds has been included to provide prisoners with space to nurture their own plants, while the garden team has been enrolled on Trellis’s online training programme designed to boost their skills and knowledge of gardening.

The garden, which held an open day last week, is expected to become of particular use among the prison’s group of older prisoners who are less able to take part in physical activities or are displaying early symptoms of dementia.

Mr Pomfret added: “It surprised me how invested they became in the project, not just the design but the construction and making sure it all fitted the budget that we had.

“The most impressive thing is that the garden was designed, built and will be used by those in our care, and that the skills they used to do it were often the result of training we provided within jail.

“The result is a beautiful wellbeing garden that has all been done by them.

“It means there is now a different area of the prison where they can go for contemplation, fresh air, and to take part in activities if they want to.”