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EcoWorks Helps Inmates Plant Seeds for the Future

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Howard EcoWorks, a nonprofit with the goal of empowering an underserved workforce to respect and restore natural systems for future generations, is teaching inmates at the Howard County Department of Corrections about sustainable gardening and landscaping. With a grant from the Chesapeake Bay Trust, EcoWorks is offering 19 inmates a series of classes, called “Landscapes for Life,” that will result in a vegetable garden for the prison.

“Previously the prison had a garden but had trouble finding the resources to keep it maintained, in part because of the choice of crops and in part because of guard turnover that resulted in a lack of oversight and maintenance,” said Lori Lilly, EcoWorks executive director. “So we designed a vegetable garden for them and will be providing instructions that the guards and inmates can use to successfully maintain and harvest from the garden over the next year.”

Minimum-security inmates completed five classroom sessions and two work days to prepare the garden and plant the first crops. “We’ll work with them later to do other successional plantings in later spring, summer and fall,” said Lilly.

The prison will use some of the vegetables internally, and some will go to the Howard County Food Bank. EcoWorks has also had conversations about collaborating with Roving Radish, a Howard County government program dedicated to promoting healthy farm-to-table eating habits in the community while creating sustainable markets for local and regional farms.

Healthy Rewards

Darlene Jolly, work release reentry supervisor at the Howard County Detention Center, said, “I am always looking for new opportunities that inmates can take advantage of during their time with us. Through EcoWorks, participants are able to learn new skills in sustainable gardening and soil preservation. It not only benefits them personally and professionally, it also benefits the community and environment.”

Inmates seem to find the program rewarding, said Lilly. “Some want to get jobs in the landscaping industry. Some want to beautify their homes,” she said.

One participant reported: “Once you get a sustainable garden going, it will require less maintenance for you.”

Irene Sadler, an instructor with EcoWorks, said she finds it rewarding to share her knowledge of sustainable gardening with people who are trying to restart their lives. “I have expertise in horticulture, ecology and landscape design, and enjoy passing any of this knowledge on, especially to motivated, curious people who may have had limited opportunities for education and career growth,” she said. “I find it gratifying to spread ideas that can help regenerate ecological systems and support joyful living.”

Another instructor, Brandt Dirmeyer, said his goal is to have the class be rewarding for those who want to apply sustainable gardening methods within their professional or personal lives in a way where they can also extend their sense of self out into their environments. “I hope that by teaching them sustainable gardening, they will gain perspective on their connections to the land that they live on and the food that they eat,” he said.

Education Into Action

EcoWorks, with the slogan “Solutions for healthy streams and communities,” has also developed a Watershed Action Team (WAT) that is working on the Tiber Hudson sub-watershed of the Patapsco River to remove debris and potential blockage from the streams.
The WAT team is composed of five people who are spending a 10-month term studying, assessing, conducting community outreach and implementing projects.

In an Ellicott City “Soak It Up” campaign, with funding from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, EcoWorks is engaging the private residential community in being a part of the solution for flood mitigation. “Our long-term goal is to convert 700 acres of turf grass to native vegetation,” explained Lilly. “We are asking the community to convert their turf grass to native plantings, rain gardens and stream buffers because turf grass is almost as bad as hard surfaces such as driveways, sidewalks, etc., in terms of runoff.”

With the grant, EcoWorks can provide technical and financial assistance for implementing projects on private property. “We also have a Soak It Up Homeowner Workshop coming up on April 28,” said Lilly. “This workshop is being held in partnership with the Neighborhood Design Center, and all attendees will leave with an Action Plan for their property that we can help them implement.”

READY for Earth-Friendly Work

Howard EcoWorks constructed its first bio-retention facility in the Greenleaf neighborhood in Columbia. Designed by the Howard Soil Conservation District and funded by the Chesapeake Bay Trust and Howard County, construction involved nine high school students who spent their spring break in 2017 with a crew from the Restoring the Environment and Developing Youth (READY) Program. They excavated 80 cubic yards of soil by hand.

The facility now treats a 1.17-acre drainage area that is 30% impervious. A second bio-retention facility was built by the summer READY program; that facility treats a 0.86-acre drainage area that is 25% impervious.

Through READY — which is now accepting applications for the summer program — EcoWorks employs Howard County residents ages 16–26 to build rain gardens and conservation landscapes that filter stormwater runoff and alleviate flooding from pavement and other impervious surfaces.