Today’s post is by actively-retired teacher, Mick Haining. As ever with our blogs, the views expressed are not necessarily endorsed by the Association.

I’m looking at a watercolour by Albert Heim. Red, white and pale blue flowers hang down among greenery that almost covers an earth wall. There’s a small patch of cloudy sky but the rest of the painting is mainly dark brown. The wall is about 3 metres tall, high enough to protect the German soldiers from being shot who would have been moving along this communications trench following some kind of almost senseless order typical of that war. There’s a ladder leaning against the foliage and it’s possible that one of the last things some soldiers saw on climbing it was those flowers so close to their faces they might even have smelled their scent.

Across no-man’s land, a young Scottish officer, Alexander Gillespie, made flower-pots from shell casings and grew violets, wallflowers, peonies and pansies. He had seeds sent from home and transplanted flowers from the gardens of abandoned homes near the front. He was killed in September 1915 at Loos. The ‘enemies’ who created these and other trench gardens were divided by an ideology that obscured what they had much more fundamentally in common – a need for nature. Gardens were grown by combatants during conflicts from Afghanistan to Vietnam, in the 1940s Warsaw ghetto and probably in any conflict in which troops have to remain for enough time to plant a seed and watch it grow. This expresses more than a wish for some kind of normality, this is a longing for affirmation in the middle of negation, for life in the face of death. 

Nearly half a century later, Nelson Mandela began a 27-year sentence on Robben Island, South Africa, where conditions were brutal. Nevertheless, one of his prison guards recorded that “he grew brinjals, tomatoes, onions and spinach” which were added to a stew that Mandela shared with the wardens every Friday. He was transferred to Pollsmoor Prison in 1982 and there he was allowed to create a roof garden. He said in his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom’: “To plant a seed, watch it grow, to tend it and then harvest it, offered a simple but enduring satisfaction. The sense of being the custodian of this small patch of earth offered a taste of freedom.”

As with wars, prisons are situations in which most people would rather not find themselves. Gardening is one of the more successful ways of helping prisoners not merely to cope with incarceration but to rehabilitate themselves for life outside. One study in San Francisco showed that 29 percent of prisoners were re-arrested within four months of release, while only 6 percent of those who partook in a gardening program were re-arrested. In July 2015, Martina Mercer posted an article online where she described how young female offenders at the UK’s Styal Prison created a Show Garden for the prestigious 2015 Royal Horticultural Society Flower Show. “As a result of gardening”, she wrote, “they report to be eating and sleeping better and have an improved sense of wellbeing”.

Prisons can involve long periods of confinement to a small room, to routines that limit variety and to submission. Gardens offer the opposite – open space, a slowly changing kaleidoscope of natural development and the opportunity to influence part of that. Those are precisely features of any life form adapting and evolving in step with the natural world around it, a facet of living that our bodies, too, have all been attuned to. The opportunity to experience an activity like gardening, in many cases for the first time, is maybe what draws people back into the ‘internet’ of nature where they belong, to be not just takers but contributors. 

The most telling example I’ve seen of that absolutely fundamental need I found on the website of Kenneth Helphand’s truly inspiring ‘Defiant Gardens’. It’s an account from 2006 in the Washington Post of the efforts of a Guantanamo detainee called Saddiq to create a garden there. He was cleared by the military of any crime but still was being held there behind razor wire, forbidden newspapers or visits from loved ones. He was denied tools and seeds but that did not stop him. He used a plastic spoon and a mop handle to break soil that he had dampened the night before to make it workable. The seeds he had collected from his meals and he was growing water-melon, peppers and garlic as well as a small, weak lemon tree.  But the tree was alive and where there’s life, there’s hope…


Mick Haining has taught French, maths and (mostly) drama in schools in England, and is now actively retired.  He can be contacted at:

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