Thursday, May 15, 2014

Growing Plants and Gratitude Inside Prison Walls: Out and About with AOLCP Kate Lacouture

 by Kathy Litchfield

PROVIDENCE, RI – Kate Lacouture didn’t set out to spend several days a week locked inside towering stone walls, planting basil, rosemary and zucchini alongside maximum security inmates without parole.
     Yet she has found that throughout her 20-year career as a landscape architect in San Francisco and her native Rhode Island, working with groups and teaching them to grow food has proved one of the most rewarding things she’s ever done.
“I feel like these are important life skills that seem to have been lost to this generation of kids and young adults.  A lot of my inmates remember gardening with their grandmothers. And the women that leave prison are all excited about starting their own gardens and that makes me so happy,” said the Yale graduate who earned her master’s in landscape architecture from the University of Virginia in Charlottesville in 1994.

  Growing up in Rhode Island, Lacouture said she was far from enthralled with gardening; “I grew up in the country. My parents had gardens but I always associated them with too many chores on the weekends. I wasn’t interested. Then I lived in New York City after college and living in such a constructed environment made me realize how important the landscape is. So I went to grad school and became a landscape architect.”

Lacouture worked on large public projects doing urban design, park design and community planning in San Francisco, Calif. including with the firms of The Office of Cheryl Barton, Mai Arbegast Landscape Architects and Marta Fry Landscape Architects before returning to Providence and founding her business, Green Circle Design.

Today she offers sustainable landscape architecture, “promoting alternatives to the typical American front lawn” and integrates native plants and organic methods. She earned her accreditation in 2008. “I wanted to bolster my knowledge of working in this region and learn any specifics I was missing about the landscape here. In landscape architecture school you don’t learn too much about the qualities of plants – it’s more like you need ‘a tall focal point or a screen’,” she said, noting that her listing on NOFA website has attracted many clients to her own website, and led to jobs. “The NOFA certification has made a huge difference for me in my business, boosting my credibility and giving me more ways to communicate with clients.”

Lacouture provides residential design throughout Providence and neighboring towns, while working with Paul Thompson of Thompson Organic Gardening for organic lawn installations and maintenance.

Recently, she turned “Garden Time” into a non-profit 501c3 organization with business partner Vera Bowen, former president of the Federation of Garden Clubs of Rhode Island, through which they can receive job training and education grants in order to be paid for their work.

“I’ve been a crazy grant writing person for months now,” she laughed, but is achieving success in receiving funds to support her work in prisons, which provides practical education and job training men and women can use upon release.

A typical Tuesday or Friday will find Lacouture and Bowen hard at work inside the walls of the men’s maximum security prison in Cranston, teaching a full curriculum of gardening and soil science (with a regular roll of guest speakers) and then getting their hands in the dirt to grow herbs, raspberries, strawberries and vegetables to complement what the kitchen stewards have in cold storage, she said. She also gardens at the women’s minimum security facility and at the men’s medium security facility, teaching them to grow herbs and food.

At first, there were learning obstacles. She recalls delightfully hauling a huge bushel of cucumbers into the kitchen only to discover the refrigerator had cucumber boxes stacked floor to ceiling. Instead of feeling discouraged, she quickly learned to make lemonade from lemons -  with salt being the only spice available to the cooks, she and the inmates planted rosemary and sage which flavored the Thanksgiving dinner all enjoyed in November. Today they also grow spicy mesclun greens and arugula to mix with the iceberg lettuce salads prepared for meals, said Lacouture. An officer works in the field with them and reminds them not to be too friendly, but once they’re weeding and planting together, conversation flows.

“We talk about their families or they ask me about my son’s baseball team. Some of it’s light like what we saw on TV last night or sports; other times we get into conversations about them. Some of them are depressed and we ask if they’re doing ok. These guys, they just really appreciate what we do, they’re really thankful that we’re there and we have a lot of fun out there. These are clearly people who have done something horrible and are being punished for it. We feel like it’s not up to us to further punish them,” said Lacouture.

She credits her career in landscape architecture for helping her land clients and jobs that she wouldn’t otherwise have had access to. It was at a school garden harvest party that a friend of a friend suggested she try gardening at prisons. Today Lacouture recommends that land care professionals “find what you love to do and figure out how to get paid for it.”

Lacouture has also designed several community and school garden projects, integrating the two so that during the busy summer gardening months community gardeners care for the school gardens until the children return in September. She and her husband maintain two community garden vegetable plots along with herb and perennial beds at home, three egg-laying chickens and three sons – 8, 11 and 14.  

When asked how she finds time for all of her projects, she said time management is key.
“I make a lot of lists,” she laughed. “Spring is particularly busy. I just try not to get overwhelmed by everything that’s coming. I really love doing this, working with groups and teaching people. And empowering for them, too. The feeling – there’s nothing like seeing seedlings emerge from seeds that you’ve planted. And every single spring, I feel that amazement, that ‘wow, it worked.’ Just to pass that onto people, especially groups who maybe haven’t had such great successes in their lives, is pretty powerful.”
For more information or to find out how you could get involved, contact Kate Lacouture at