Published by City Farmer, Canada's Office of Urban Agriculture


The Women's Garden Project

Evergreen/Corrections Canada
Project Coordinator and Landscape Designer:
Tracy Penner, BLA Evergreen Program Manager: Denise Philippe
Facility Warden: Diane Brown

Photos accompanying this article can be found here.


The facility is located in the centre of the Fraser Valley, British Columbia in a pastoral setting with majestic views of Mount Baker, plenty of sunlight and reasonable soil for growing. (Image 1)

Project Description

Corrections Canada secured Evergreen to complete a community-based naturalization and gardening project as a transition program for federally incarcerated women who were being moved to another facility. The project was conducted from December 2003 to March 2004. The purpose of the project was to create a programmatic landscape, increase civic-minded actions, develop a stewardship ethic and build community amongst the women. Our contract included outreach and education with the women, a completed multi-stage concept plan, and detailed drawings and plant lists. The landscape architect used a participatory design process to involve the women inmates in planning the outdoor spaces for their new Fraser Valley facility.

Through a series of design workshops, prisoners were introduced to site analysis data and various design features and participated in visioning, using models and photos of the site. (Images 2, 3, 4) From these workshops, two concept plans were developed and were presented to the women for feedback. A preferred Master plan was developed by synthesizing the information gathered. (Image 5) In the final design the women chose to include several areas for reflection, health and horticultural learning. Native plants, food gardens and flowers were favourite themes which were incorporated into the programme. The first features built include a bridge over a landscaped drainage swale planted with a native wetland garden. (Images 6, 7, 8, 9) The bridge provides a transition from the education and counseling building to the communal housing area. A large vegetable garden has been started in a half acre strip of land behind the housing units.

Implementation of the plans and on-going maintenance provide job training and life skills for participants, as well as fostering a sense of community and cooperation and honouring various cultural traditions. (Images 10 and 11) Further features listed below are to be added in phases over the future, making this a dynamic project. There is an emphasis on sustainable gardening and lifestyle practices.

Words from the women about their experience with the project:

...hard work pays off in beauty and accomplishment. Transforming nothing into something is quite rewarding."

"I learned patience."

"I learned how to work with different styles of doing things."

Garden Features And Programme

Garden Spaces Recreational Spaces Spirit Grounds Other Features List of Photos
1. View of the Fraser Valley, near prison facility
2. Visits area and front of facility, before
3. Spiritual grounds, before planning and building garden
4. Bridge area before: note drainage problems
5. Site masterplan
6. Bridge garden design
7. Bridge built and installed by local youth job training program; all drainage and landscaping installed and maintained by women in-mates
8. Bridge after installation in March
9. Bridge garden in July - patience rewarded
10. Pathway to spiritual grounds area. All surrounding landscaping carried out by women using indigenous plants.
11. Second view of spiritual grounds pathway.

Gardens in Prisons

by Tracy Penner and Illene Pevec

Most people who end up in prison come from a variety of life-long difficulties that include growing up in environments of poverty, low levels of formal education, childhood abuse, limited options and a lack of role models for earning a living honestly. The prison system rarely fills in the missing blanks in prisoners' lives to provide the kind of environment these people need to enable them to make restitution for their crimes, regain their dignity and reenter society once they have served their terms. Recidivism is high, showing clearly that the system needs new strategies if inmates are to successfully rejoin society. (Koshak,1998) Prison gardens offer people who want to turn their lives around a place to reconnect with their natural rhythms, get healthy exercise in the fresh air, work cooperatively with others and care for the earth in a healing way (Clinebill, 1996). An inmate working in a prison garden can learn job skills, contribute to the common good by growing food for others, and find a focus for their lives post-release (Hynes, 1996). The new Women's Garden at a Corrections Canada facility near Vancouver, British Columbia was inspired by one such program that has run with great success in San Francisco for over a decade.

Catherine Sneed, a lawyer and social worker, initiated and continues to run the best known and most comprehensive prison garden program in North America. Started in 1982 by Sneed after her close call with a life threatening illness, the San Francisco County Jail in San Bruno, California, hosts the Horticulture project for incarcerated people and the Garden Project and Tree Corps for those who have been released. Sneed's purpose is to grow human beings: to give prisoners practical skills and guidelines for living a healthy life as a contributing member of society.

Prisoners cleared away years of weeds, trash and building rubble from the 8 acres adjacent to the county jail to prepare the earth for growing vegetables. The produce that is grown on this land is donated to places where people have the most need such as food banks, housing projects and seniors centres. Prison gardeners take great pride their ability to be part of society. Along with the working skills they learn, program participants also find out how to work cooperatively. Time is often taken to discuss effective ways to resolve dispute, include others in decision making, or find more respectful ways to communicate with each other. After release, graduates of Sneed's program have a much lower incidence of reoffense. (Sneed et al, 2001)

Job preparation and increased social contribution are not the only benefits to getting prisoners gardening. Being close to nature also promotes good mental and physical health. Environmental psychologists Steven and Rachel Kaplan have done studies showing that prisoners who have even a view of trees from cells are less violent than those who don't. People in hospitals recover faster if they can see trees from their hospital beds. (Kaplan, 1982). Gardening is part of learning to live a healthier lifestyle. The newest food guide from the Harvard School of Public Health puts exercise as the base of the pyramid of good health practices followed by the food we eat. Whole grains come next then vegetables followed by fruit. A prison system that wishes to support rehabilitation of its prisoners has the chance to provide this base of the good health pyramid by providing a garden where prisoners can exercise and eat the fruits of their labour.

With all of these benefits in mind, the garden project for the new Corrections Canada women's prison facility in Matsqui has involved the women in-mates in planning and designing the gardens as well as other features on site. Working with the non-profit community naturalization organization Evergreen and Corrections Canada, landscape architect Tracy Penner has used her experience in participatory planning of school grounds and parks to give the women the opportunity to reflect on and choose the kinds of gardens they want to help create and tend on the campus where they are incarcerated. Through a series of workshops with prisoners using power point photo presentations to discuss site analysis and possible design elements as well as hands on planning exercises, the women determined their preferences for the garden. A large vegetable garden, a bridge over a natural rain swale, scented borders, a First Nations sacred area for growing native plants, sweat lodges and teepees, and a view point all scored high on the prisoner's list of interests. After consultation and acceptance by prison staff, these features have been incorporated into a final preferred plan for the site. The resulting masterplan will be used to guide programmes and facilities as they are developed over the next few years. To date, the women have laid out vegetable plots, sculpted a drainage basin, landscaped using both ornamental and native plants and created gardens of First Nations traditional plants. They have planted several trees on site for shade. However, the project is far from complete. The intent is that the program will continue and the garden will be added onto by successive inmates. The next projects to be constructed on site include a communal herb garden for cooking and a labyrinth pathway. Fitness and recreation features are also in the plans.

Just as the work of Catherine Sneed and her staff has shown that people in the prison system can learn to value life and care for it by working in a garden, the Women's Garden has begun to build skills and a sense of how to be part of a community for inmates in Canada. "Families are like gardens. Honour their lives-care for women and children- like you do the plants," instructs one Garden Project coordinator in Sneed's program (Hynes, 1996, p. 43). The next challenge these gardens face is the need for ongoing educational programming to help take full advantage of the opportunities to provide both horticultural training and interpersonal skills for the women. Staff can use the garden as the living environment for teaching not only about gardening but about life. Participants can learn how to take responsibility for their own actions, and what needs to change inside them in order to function effectively and positively in mainstream society. Rehabilitation is part of the work of a garden. As Catherine Sneed says, "A mistake is just the compost for a better garden tomorrow."

The garden is a learning environment that allows people to slow down, listen, look, and learn on many levels. With adequate programming and capable staff, the garden can be used fully as a resource for developing prisoner's skills. When released, these gardeners are more successful at integrating into society, transplants into the urban environment with an ability to grow and adopt healthier, more constructive lifestyles.

Go to the women's garden project to see photos and more information


Anderson, E.N., Ecologies of the Heart: Emotion, Belief and the Environment. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996

Clinebell, H., Ecotherapy: Healing Ourselves, Healing the Earth Minnesota: Augsberg Fortress, 1996.

Hynes, H. P., A Patch of Eden, America's Inner-city Gardeners. White River Junction, Vermont: Chelsea Green Publishing Company, 1996.

Kaplan, R, et al With People in Mind. Washington. DC: Island Press, 1998

Kaplan, R., "The Green Experience" in S. Kaplan & R. Kaplan (Eds.) Humanscape: Environments for People. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan, Ulrich's Inc., 1982

Neusteter Koshak, G. "The Practical Aspects of Incorporating Therapeutic Gardens into Correctional Facilities", Thesis paper, Department of Landscape Architecture. Pomona: California State Polytechnic University, 1998

Sneed, Hennessy, et al, "Why the Garden Project?" 2001 at

Van Cleef, L. "Gardening Conquers All: How to cut your jail recidivism rates by half" from the San Francisco Chronical Gate, December 18, 2002 at

Search Our Site[new]

pointer Return to Contents' Page pointer

Revised Oct 14, 2010

Published by City Farmer
Canada's Office of Urban Agriculture