ST. CHARLES TOWNSHIP – Five women detainees at the Kane County jail had never gardened before, had no idea how to grow vegetables and had never tasted a fresh-picked ripe cherry tomato.
But with the help of volunteers from the Geneva Garden Club, and support from Kane County Sheriff Ron Hain, the five learned vegetable gardening from the ground up all this summer.
“It was a wonderful experience,” said garden club spokeswoman Tammy Chiovari. “The women loved going out there. They were so excited when they saw little baby peppers. They said, ‘Look how cute! They are so little!’ It was a great thing to be a part of this summer and the sheriff is already talking about next year.”
Hain said the women participants were the only ones eligible to be in the garden because of their low risk of escape and good disciplinary records.
"It was just getting off the ground," Hain said. "We expect to double or triple that number next year. I give credit to the Geneva Garden Club members who helped design the garden and worked with the women."
Garden club volunteers helped the inmates create gardens on top of a cement courtyard area inside the jail using 24 circular fabric rounds about 50 inches in diameter to hold dirt for planting, Chiovari said.
“The sheriff brought in a ton of mulch,” Chiovari said. “The mulch was dumped over the wall and we built these on top of the mulch. … We used at least eight bags of dirt per round. We dumped all those bags of dirt and planted hundreds of vegetables, tomatoes, a variety of peppers, oregano, rosemary, lettuces, collard greens, string beans, carrots.”
The weekly sessions were very regulated, she said.
"For them to join us, they had guards assigned to them," Chiovari said. "They loved going out there. It was really exciting to see that enthusiasm.”
The garden club members taught the detainees how to prune and stake the vegetables, to water them – but not so much that they would be too wet, Chiovari said.
Their harvest was donated to local pantries in Elgin, Aurora and Batavia.
“They were excited to do that, too,” Chiovari said. “Some tomatoes were ready to eat. I said, ‘It’s OK. You can eat a couple of cherry tomatoes.’ They did not want to, but I said they could eat a couple. I wanted them to taste how good they are when they are fresh.”
The garden club volunteers also taught the women that they could plant vegetables in pots if they did not have access to a garden once they leave the jail, Chiovari said.
The club also provided them with books on vegetable gardening.
Chiovari said the five garden club volunteers also took a five-hour training on safety to be helping out in the jail.
“The logistics were crazy. We brought in five pairs of gloves and garden shoes. Each time they were passed out and collected to make sure everything came back,” Chiovari said.
Everything for the garden program was donated, some by the Geneva Garden Club, big box stores donated vegetables and mulch, she said.
“It was the most rewarding thing I’ve done in my life,” Chiovari said. “We ended with a salad luncheon with the vegetables and herbs we grew and the inmates ate with us. We had lovely flutes with sparkling grape juice. Sheriff Hain was instrumental in getting that going.”