The seeds of redemption

A tranquil garden has just won a gold award at Chelsea. But its creators are not the genteel Middle-Englanders you might expect. They are, in fact, inmates and officers from a Gloucestershire prison. Christopher Hirst goes to meet them

It seems an idyllic and forgotten corner of England. An ancient rowing boat rocks gently at its mooring in a dilapidated boathouse. Bulrushes and yellow flag irises cluster round the water's edge. Clover, cornflowers and buttercups punctuate an adjoining meadow. Ancient trees of the English landscape - ash, birch and willow - form a backdrop, with bracken, ivy and brambles coiling round their trunks. Colour is flecked amid the woodland by foxgloves and bluebells. It is the epitome of timeless tranquility - at least, it is until 5pm tonight, when this bucolic scene will be ruthlessly torn apart. Every thistle and plank, every forget-me-not and stone will be transported back to a prison in Gloucestershire.

For the second time, HMP Leyhill has scooped a gold award for its show garden at the Chelsea Flower Show. This year's theme was a famous couplet from the otherwise forgotten poet William Henry Davies (1871-1940): "What is this life if, full of care/ We have no time to stand and stare."

Cleve West, a Chelsea show garden judge, explained why Leyhill had struck gold again. "The designer has a terrific eye for detail. He has managed to orchestrate the space brilliantly, so it teases the eye through the garden and makes you want to explore it. He knows all the tricks of the trade and maintains a very high standard." The television garden designer Diarmuid Gavin declared that the Leyhill garden was his favourite at this year's show.

Unusually for an old Chelsea hand, the designer does not boast a double-barreled name. He does not make a living creating verdant habitats for Middle Eastern potentates or Californian billionaires. Jeff Goundrill has just completed his 23rd year in the prison service. A tall, hawk-eyed, deceptively relaxed 50-year-old, he is the head of enterprises at HMP Leyhill. According to Rosie Atkins, the director of the Chelsea Physic Garden, he is "simply a hero. He changes one's perception of how horticulture can be used".

Leyhill, which has 520 inmates, is a Category D (low security) prison. It is primarily concerned with the resettlement of prisoners who are approaching the end of their sentences. Some are lifers, others are ending relatively brief spells behind bars. Prisoners are free to choose the area in which they will receive training in order to earn a living outside. About 50 prisoners work in Leyhill's three acres of nurseries and 23 acres of amenity land.

Goundrill explained how the prison became involved with Britain's premier garden show in 1990. "Someone offered us a site and I submitted a design. Chelsea took us up - God knows why - and they've supported us ever since. When we first came, I thought the Royal Horticultural Society would be a bit stuffy, but they're far removed from that."

Leyhill's first effort at Chelsea, entitled The Edible Garden, was a living metaphor for a prison sentence. "We began with very harsh prickly vegetables and ended with release in the form of a strawberry archway," Goundrill said. It gained a silver-gilt award from Chelsea's judges and began Leyhill's astonishing series of horticultural successes. Since then, the prison has produced gardens at six Chelsea shows, achieving a gold award in 2000 with a display entitled Time the Healer. Goundrill has achieved equal success in the seven gardens he produced for the Royal Horticultural Society's somewhat brasher show at Hampton Court. In 1994, a mock shop and allotment called Del's Fruit & Veg (named after Derek Lewis, who was the director of the Prison Service at the time) took the Tudor Rose award. In 1998, the prison once again struck gold at Hampton Court with Take a Walk on the Wild Side, which inspired a feature film.

Despite this year's plaudits and gold award, the creation of Leyhill's garden at Chelsea has not been without its traumatic moments. The worst came when Goundrill first saw his allocated site in December. "A tree standing at the back was so badly pruned," he tutted. "When I saw it, I just said, 'Oh my godfathers.'" At first, he tried using large beech trees to screen it, but eventually decided to capitalise on the brutalised boughs by including a large, fallen tree-trunk at the heart of his design.

Goundrill admitted that his gardens tend to be "very romantic, very escapist. I use the gardens as a form of escapism myself. I can switch off from the politics of prison through the garden. It is the kind of escape we want to encourage in prison." He concedes that Leyhill has an advantage over most of the other green-fingered outfits displaying at Chelsea. "I've got nothing to sell. My job isn't on the line, and I don't have to get a year's work from the show. I can be as creative as I like and come up with meaningful stories. A lot of our themes are based on a prisoner's life or thoughts. This year's garden is an ideal that a prisoner banged up for 23 hours a day may dream of. Prisoners do have a lot of time to stand and stare." Whenever Leyhill's show gardens have included a building, the door is always open.

According to Goundrill, the open door not only suggests impending liberty but the possibility of getting work. "A lot of the prisoners involved with the projects have gained employment in horticulture or related industries following release. They include lifers who have served between 15 and 25 years." Work starts on each garden a year in advance. After coming up with a design, Goundrill begins with a team of two and steadily builds up to 15 as the show approaches. "I prefer to take longer-term prisoners who won't be released before the time of the show. I dread it if they get parole. You've got to be practical. This is a big job."

Aside from such practical concerns, Goundrill takes great care choosing the personalities who will tend the show garden and explain the planting to visitors. "Horticultural experience is not important, but they have to be team players who will work 14-hour days in the run-up to the show. They have work evenings and weekends without pay. I also want prisoners who can communicate. After all, this is a PR exercise."

The rewards for such efforts sometimes extend far beyond the golden glow of a Chelsea award. "One of the former prisoners is now head gardener for a very wealthy family," said Goundrill. "From previous years, two have now got their own landscaping business and a dozen or so have gained full-time employment."

It is safe to say that Goundrill's head has not been turned by his brush with Hollywood. Greenfingers, the feature film inspired by his work, starred Helen Mirren as a briskly inspirational garden designer. Despite his glamorous transmogrification, Goundrill was not much impressed by the result. He asked me not to print his pithy one-word critique. "It didn't capture a true picture of what we're doing. But maybe I wanted too much of a documentary. The Americans loved it."

At the Chelsea press launch on Monday, a member of Goundrill's team called Jez took an equally earthy view when Jerry Hall paid a regal visit to the Leyhill garden. "She could do with a good brush through her hair," said this horticultural perfectionist. But he didn't object too vigorously when asked to pose for a snap with the BBC's horticulturalist Rachel de Thame. No wonder Jez is keen on the idea of taking up gardening for a living: "I very much like the idea of landscaping."

Unlike many of the big showpieces at Chelsea, the Leyhill garden will not be sold off. The specimen plants will return to the prison nurseries for re-use in future displays. The boat will take up a new mooring in Leyhill's visitor centre, which took in £350,000 last year. "All the money goes back to the Treasury," stressed Goundrill. "I hope to double that amount this year when we open a new arts and crafts centre in August."

After his repeated show-gardening successes over the past 13 years, Goundrill is now contemplating retirement from the prison service, but he doesn't want to escape life behind bars entirely. After his MBE for voluntary work in prisons in Africa, he is considering a permanent move to that even more challenging environment - but not just yet. And he is already working on next year's Chelsea show. "It'll be something completely different," he said. "I am hoping to do a Japanese theme, but I am going to have to do a lot more research first. I could do with a really good Japanese prisoner."

As Goundrill's team prepared to trowel up the 60-odd species from their precious plot in London SW3, they considered what the experience had meant to them. "It was wonderful to see the garden progress, especially when you've grown the flowers from seed," said Dave, one the prisoners who worked on the project. "As soon as we heard we'd won the gold, the whole team had a wonderful sense of achievement. When I first saw the design, I thought we were never going to achieve it, but it's worked out really well."

So does Dave see himself taking up a career in gardening once he's released? "Not really, but it has given me a great sense of nature." Jez added: "It was incredible - the effort paid off more than I ever imagined. Although the standards at Chelsea are very very high, it gave me something to aim towards for the future."

Michael, one Goundrill's former inmate-protégés, now a professional gardener, was at Chelsea this year to inspect his old mentor's work. "I was here with him two years ago," he said. "Some of these plants I actually grew myself. I really miss Chelsea; doing the show is a tremendous boost to your self-esteem."

So, another year, another award for Goundrill, but the benefits of his gardening endeavours go much deeper than that. "The experience for prisoners of coming to Chelsea just reminds them of the outside world," he said. "And it also shows people on the outside that prisons are not as black as they're often painted."

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