Meet the women Growing Wild behind bars

“I’m very lucky to work in such lovely surroundings,” Marilyn Carthy says leading me through a metal gate at Foston Hall women’s prison and locking it behind us.   

The gardens here are certainly not what I expect to see. Although admittedly I have been watching the new series of Netflix prison drama ‘Orange Is the New Black’ recently. We pass a couple of the women in green jumpsuits, working on the perfectly manicured lawns and flower beds. But that's not why I’m here. Marilyn leads me through another gate and my eyes are met by an array of colourful wildflowers, bursting out amongst a patch that’s been grown wild.   

Some of the women here received Grow Wild kits this year, sowing wildflower seeds and growing fungi under the enthusiastic leadership of their English teacher Marilyn Carthy. “Give me a subject and I’ll make an English lesson out of it,” Marilyn says, her can do attitude is infectious and she is clearly well respected by the women who tell me they enjoy learning with her. 

“I’d never grown anything before this,” Samantha says, gesturing to the wildflowers, “I thought I’d have a go and I like it, it’s a good laugh and I’ve learnt stuff I can teach others when I get out.”

Sophie who has been growing the fungi says, “I’ve got learning difficulties, so I was a bit scared at first, scared to do it. I was worried it wouldn’t work, but we did it in a group and we could follow the instructions, so I felt alright

Sophie missed out on eating the fungi when it was fully-grown because she wasn’t in the English class that day. “I was upset I didn’t get to eat them. I want to grow them again. I feel more confident now,” she says. 

Zoe arrives, watering can in hand and keen to talk, “It takes some looking after,” she states, “we’re out here every morning from eight-thirty till eleven-thirty and then from one-thirty till four-thirty in the afternoon. We’ve been entered into a competition,” she says proudly.

“It makes you feel nice when you see the flowers bloom because you know that you’ve grown them from little seeds. You baby them, then you see the result of all your hard work and it makes you feel good. But it’s the whole year, even in winter. It never stops. You have to work hard, you can’t just want the end result,” She says.

But Zoe isn’t put off, “I’m going to get an allotment when I go home and grow vegetables and flowers,” she says, “We haven’t got a garden at home, but I’m going to get some pots, make it look pretty.”

Leah has the role of mentor in her English class. “The point of being a mentor is not to do for the other girls but to encourage them. I have one lady who can’t see very well, so I spend time reading things for her. I make sure they have everything they need to do the work,” she says.

“The girls loved growing the fungi too. It was nice to see them engaging with something they didn’t expect to have in an English classroom,” Leah continues, “We got two lots as well,” she says triumphantly, “we didn't think they’d grow anymore and then I watered them and up the popped!” She laughs.

I ask Leah if she thinks having a connection with nature is important. “Oh yes, definitely. I think that people who grow up in cities are missing out on the feelings of calm and wellness that you get from just being in nature. Just being in that environment. To be able to feel things, touch them, smell them, that whole experience in all those different senses and the feelings you get from it. It’s something I can’t explain, you’ve just got to go and feel it I think.” She says. 

Looking out at the wildflower patch Leah continues, “In the city, there’s lots of structure, but there’s nothing that smells and feels clean like this. There’s nothing that promotes that sense of wellbeing and peace I suppose. I’m quite a tactile person, so getting my hands in as well and mucking about with it and putting seeds in. I love it. From day one of planting, I’m there like ‘is anything growing yet, is anything growing yet…’ I just want to see things growing.

“We should all put our feet on grass and get our hands mucky in the mud.  We should all have that experience of knowing that something other than yourself grows, has needs and can develop in this way. Being a part of that, investing in that should be something that we can all access every day,” Leah says.

If you have been inspired to sow and grow wildflowers, find out where to get seeds here.