At first glance it looks like any other community orchard setting – people are focused on a pruning task and are chatting under the summer sun – but it’s actually very different. This is Thorn Cross’ 160 fruit tree orchard, set in the extensive grounds of the open prison in Cheshire.
I recently joined our Manchester project manager Elsa Little (below, with TV presenter and gardener Tayshan Hayden-Smith) and a film crew to go behind the scenes of a summer pruning workshop.
Creating long lasting orchards
In summer 2021, we began our five year project with the Ministry of Justice to ensure the orchards they are planting across prisons in England and Wales last for many years to come, by sharing our orcharding expertise and high-quality training with both staff and prisoners.
“I really didn’t know what to expect, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how nice it is to do prison workshops,” says Elsa. “The staff are all very appreciative of us coming in to do training for the prisoners, and the prisoners themselves are always incredibly grateful for my time at the end. It feels like a really worthwhile thing to do, especially when someone’s like, ‘I really want to plant trees when I get out’.”
This particular session included an orchard health check and a demonstration of formative summer pruning for prunus (cherries and plums). Participants then worked in small groups to prune the trees after being supervised on a practice run. They also looked at orchard aftercare for summer and the importance of mulching and watering.
Prisoners take pride in their work
For some workshops, our staff can bring their own tools, but for many they have to rely on what the prison provides. “One thing that’s different in the prison workshops is they have an element of ‘go with the flow’,” explains Elsa. “You don’t necessarily know how many people are going to attend and how engaged they will be – I’ve had sessions with six people and 26 people.
“I am a bit more aware of the environment and sometimes we’re using less resources, but how I approach it is really the same, which is to focus on the benefits of orchards for communities. I also open every workshop with a quick discussion about orchard benefits, really trying to engage what they already know, and that’s the same across the board.”
Being an open prison with a focus on rehabilitation, Thorn Cross is more relaxed than higher security venues, where our staff are often escorted through a series of locked gates and prisoners and tools have to be continuously accounted for.
Here, a group of prisoners are given responsibility and autonomy over specific areas of the grounds and are trusted to do tasks with minimal supervision. “This is their home – it’s their own garden,” explains Jon Spencer, who oversees the prison grounds and the small team of prisoners who work there. “They don’t damage it because it’s a nice place to be, and those who manage it take pride in keeping the grounds looking good.”
Paul (below), who is one of the grounds team, says working there has helped him immensely. “I suffer from mental health issues and being outside working has helped alleviate stress for me,” he says. “I find it calming to be among the trees and plants.”
The many benefits of orchards
Orchards offer multiple benefits for people in prison, enhancing wellbeing by providing psychological relaxation and alleviating stress, stimulating social cohesion and supporting physical activity. Working in an orchard also enables people to learn new skills and gain confidence.
“It’s a good opportunity for them to do something different, engage with someone else other than prison staff, ask questions, and learn something new,” says Elsa. “It’s also really helpful for the staff and prisoners to learn how to steward their orchard in a way that means that the orchard thrives over time.”
Over the past 18 months we’ve trained over 150 people in orchard skills from 30 different sites, including in Kent, Gloucestershire, Cheshire, Buckinghamshire, Monmouthshire, Lancashire and Warwickshire. The first year was largely devoted to train-the-trainer sessions.
There are a wide variety of different types of prison orchards we are working in – both existing and newly created as part of this project. They range from container orchards of 5-10 trees at the very urban ones, such as in Wandsworth, London, to hundreds of trees on the more rural sites such as this one in Cheshire.
How does being in prisons relate to our regular work?
We currently work across a variety of community settings, including hospitals, housing estates and schools to reach and engage specific disadvantaged groups.
Some of these projects are carried out in partnership with other organisations, such as this one with the Ministry of Justice.
It’s a great opportunity to make a positive difference to the lives of people in prisons and we’re excited to be part of their ambitious project to plant an orchard in every one of their 250 prisons in England and Wales.
We have a 14-year track record in working with and training disadvantaged groups in orchard maintenance skills, bringing a wealth of expertise in designing climate-resilient, thriving orchards.
by Sarah Cossom, Communications Manager