VERSAILLES — Vegetable gardens have had surges in popularity over the years. From victory gardens during the two world wars to compensate for the food shortages, to community gardens in recent years at schools, churches, parks, and even the White House, the gardens have provided healthy, fresh produce.
Now, with the uncertain economy, vegetable gardens have become increasingly popular, providing economic and ecological benefits to many communities. Joining that mission is the Woodford County Detention Center, with its five-acre garden at the jail on Beasley Drive.
Jailer Johnny Jones had the idea to implement a jail garden when he was elected last November, and this spring, he put his plan into place.
"This has been a great year for the garden with all the rain," Jones said.
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The abundance from the garden has been beneficial for the inmates and for the community. The produce harvested so far has been sold to CBM, the jail's food service contractor, or donated to local groups, including the Woodford County Senior Citizen Center, Lexington Rescue Mission and the Versailles Baptist Church Veggie Ministry mission.
In addition, milk crates of excess tomatoes were delivered to the Woodford County fire, ambulance and police stations, and to the sheriff's office.
"Selling the vegetables to CBM has saved us between $5,000 and $10,000 and provides better quality food for our inmates," Jones said. CBM buys the vegetables from Jones at market value.
The jail's bountiful garden has a wide variety of produce, including green beans, tomatoes, bell peppers, onions, cabbage, pumpkins, watermelons and "a row of zinnias for color," Jones said.
There are 1,300 tomato plants that will yield 52,000 to 53,000 tomatoes. "We have given away 800 pounds of beans, 880 pounds of tomatoes and 180 pounds of bell peppers so far," Jones said.
Recipients are thankful.
"It's like Christmas when we get the vegetables," said Mary Aliano, director of the Woodford County Senior Citizen Center.
The Center has received donations from the jail garden at least four times this summer, amounting to several baskets full of fresh vegetables, Aliano said. Senior citizens enjoy the fresh vegetables in their lunch meals at the center, and they get to take the produce home to their families.
To help preserve some of the abundance, Jones has received donations of eight freezers from the Woodford County Fair Board and one freezer from the Woodford County Cooperative Extension Service. All the freezers but one are now full.
In addition, the Extension Service has helped identify the few pests that have been in the garden this year, and it has an agriscience demonstration plot in the garden. The demonstration plot features 300 tomato plants, pumpkins and watermelons grown with black plastic mulch to help retard weed growth, and trickle irrigation.
The jail garden was the first stop on the annual Woodford County Farm Tour in July, with a walking tour of the garden and a look at the demonstration plot.
Jones is a lifelong Woodford County resident and a farmer. His father, grandfather and great-grandfather have farmed land in Midway. Before being elected jailer last fall, he was maintenance manager at Falling Springs Recreation Center, taking care of the county's sports fields and satellite parks. State inmates worked on his crew, and his work with those inmates helped inspire his decision to run for jailer.
"I love it," Jones said of his new position, adding that he often works 70 to 80 hours a week doing the work he enjoys.
The garden was one of Jones' goals to lower the deficit and get the inmates participating in productive work rather than just staying in their cells. He has three or four minimum-security inmates working in and around the garden every day under officer supervision, and he often has several state inmates who volunteer to work in the garden in the evening.
Some of those inmates are not from Kentucky and had never seen a garden before. One inmate from New York told Jones that before his exposure to the garden, he thought "corn just came from a can."
Jones said he plans to expand the gardening program next year by offering a Master Gardener program in conjunction with the Extension Service, and possibly establishing a pesticide licensing program. His goal is to help rehabilitate the inmates while helping them to gain skills that they can use after their release.
Before planting the garden this year, the inmates participated in a roadside trash pickup on every road in Woodford County, netting 17,700 pounds of garbage. Another trash pickup is planned for the fall.