| NEW GROWTH – Weakley County Detention Center Trustee Mae Bean picks the leaves off the tops of the okra plants in the center’s vegetable garden. |
For the past two years, the Weakley County Jail has developed an indirect kinship to an all-time favorite children’s book.
In Frances Hodgson Burnett’s “The Secret Garden,” the young heroine Mary Lennox asks for “a bit of earth” hidden away behind walls and barriers in which to plant a special garden and reap the beauty and friendship from its flowers.
Two years ago, Jackie Dunlap and David Ricketts took a parcel of land within the walls of the jail and with the help of trustees, have planted a garden in order to reap the rewards and benefits of its fruits and vegetables.
Last year, Ricketts organized the project and this year Dunlap was placed in charge.
According to jail administrator Jim Phelps, seeds and fertilizer serves as the only expense as a volunteer plows the ground and a tiller was donated to tidy up any persistent weeds.
“We try to plant seeds that will produce a lot of vegetables and fruits — things like tomatoes, peas, beans, some corn, cantaloupe, squash and peppers. This doesn’t make a big dent in the food supply or grocery bill, but just as you and I like to have fresh food at times, so do the inmates,” Phelps remarked.
The literal groundwork began in late March and early April of this year and the garden is expected to produce through August. As crops are harvested, more vegetables are planted in the place of others.
Directly behind the Sheriff’s Department, the 60’ X 60’ square of land currently blossoms a wide variety of colors. Bordering the plot on the left are vines of dark green watermelons mingled with the tannish-orange rinds of ripe cantaloupe.
Beyond that is a jungle of large-leaf squash plants already yellowing from the intense heat of the sun.
A break in the action separates the mature from the newborn as two rows of purple-hull peas are just now popping out of the soil.
Cucumbers encircle them and they are guarded on the left by a wall of okra, nearly guaranteed to produce until frost, or so legend says.
Beside the okra are smaller rows of shorter beans and peppers and finally several tomato plants, already heavy from the weight of several round red fruits, make up the right side.
Noticeably missing is the corn, but a good crop last year gave no reason to plant again this year.
“Last year the test garden went well and this year, we have another good one. My hope is that we can eventually expand it and put more of the same, but maybe add lettuce and onions,” Phelps commented.
As trustee jobs for females are difficult to find at times, Phelps admitted this has become another plus for the garden as it provides jobs for the female trustees.
“Last year was good and this year was good. As long as we have an officer to oversee it, we’ll continue,” Phelps said.
Trustees Mae Ben and Christina Stepp are currently “giving the okra a haircut” as they carefully pull off the top leaves of the plant to better expose the pods for picking.
The summer heat and humidity are intense, but the desire to see their secret garden all the way through to complete fruition is even more intense.