CLEARWATER — After being booked into the Pinellas County Jail in January, James Brown was told he could either clean up after the homeless at Pinellas Safe Harbor, the nearby county shelter, or help at the jail’s horticultural center.
“I preferred the plants,” Brown, 53, said.
What he discovered was that potting red geraniums and pulling weeds out of Egyptian papaya plants suited him. He liked it. His blood pressure, which was high, has come down. And he’s mellowed somewhat.
“I used to be a rough guy,” Brown, who is serving a six-month sentence for marijuana possession and for having a counterfeit license plate 10 years ago, said at the center on Friday. “Fooling around with these plants sort of backed me up from that.”
In August, the center will have been operating for 10 years.
It started with a Pinellas Technical Education Center instructor who was given office space, access to a vacant lot, and about $6,000 of tax money a year to buy potting soil, pots, seeds and the like.
Since then, the center has evolved into a bright stretch of variegated green in the jail’s shadow where so many plants are sold the enterprise has become economically self-sufficient.
At the helm is the PTEC instructor who was there from the beginning — Chuck Pool, a 67-year-old who sports a pith helmet as he walks around giving instructions to jail trustees in striped uniforms whose crimes are minor enough for them to be allowed outside.
“I wasn’t real thrilled about coming to the jail,” said Pool, who worked at the PTEC on 34th Street South in St. Petersburg before his transfer. “But now that I’m here, I like it and I don’t plan on leaving.
“The inmates are my students,” he said.
One of the first things Pool wanted was a greenhouse. He wasn’t permitted to buy one, so he purchased a less expensive shade house instead for $3,000. A green house is designed to grow plants, while a shade house shields them.
Pool’s plan was to start an ornamental woody plant nursery — a place where customers could buy plants to landscape their homes and businesses.
Though he and his inmates sometimes plant seeds, Pool also has bought plants from wholesale brokers with an eye toward taking cuttings from those plants to grow more.
Recently, Pool said, he and his wife were leaving a fitness center when she noticed a foxtail palm tree heavily laden with seeds. He grabbed a plastic bag, and filled it with the seeds, which he later took to the center.
In addition to foxtail palms, customers may buy Chinese fan palms, edible fig trees, contorted mulberry trees, Indian Hawthorn, Asiatic jasmine, and Indian blanket wildflowers, among others.
Three years ago, Pool was told that because of budget constraints he wouldn’t get the $3,000 he typically received from the jail each year, plus an additional $3,000 from the school system. By then however, he and the inmates were selling so many plants the center had become self-sustaining.
“The jail and the school saw I was bringing in money so they decided to use their money elsewhere,” Pool said. “That’s reading between the lines. They never told me that.”
Pool said he doesn’t necessarily know what his inmates are sentenced for when they are placed in his charge. He did have one inmate recently who had been accused of cultivating marijuana.
“The idea is to grow something that’s legal,” said Pool, half joking. “A lot of them have experience growing something that’s illegal.”
Inmate Brown goes to the horticultural center every day he can — Monday through Friday. As much as he relishes helping something grow, he also wants to do what he can to make sure something doesn’t die.
“I’m a big stickler for the weeds,” he said. “I don’t want the weeds pushing on the flower.”
“These plants,” he said, gesturing to the array at his feet. “You have to be particular with them because they are particular beings.”