Gaining Ground Gardens :: Growing Inmate Skills Through Horticulture Therapy

Written by Kaitlyn Bernarde

Have you seen some new fruit trees along Grand Avenue in the vacant lot by Thomas Street in Wausau?

Fruit Trees at Gaining Ground Gardens
One of several labeled apple trees planted at Gaining Ground Gardens in Wausau. (Photo courtesy of Sarah Thurs.) 

Well, these plantings at Gaining Ground Gardens are just the beginning of a brand-new Marathon County therapeutic horticulture initiative that aims to use the practice of community gardening to provide stress relief, as well as emotional and social therapy.

According to Horticulture Educator Brianna Wright from the Extension Marathon County division of UW–Madison:

“We want to provide support for people in the community who need it. But overall, we want to build a healthier county and really get people more in touch with nature.”

Marathon County UW–Extension Horticulture Educator Brianna Wright.

This innovative community project grew out of a partnership between Extension Marathon County, City of Wausau, and Marathon County that aims to:

  • Reduce the recidivism rate
  • Assist those with mental illness
  • Further connect people and resources across Marathon County

In spring 2018 — when Wright first began at Extension Marathon County — County Board Supervisors, administration, local nonprofit leaders, and community members all expressed concern over local health issues and jail overcrowding. Furthermore, it was pointed out in the 2017–2019 LIFE Report (“LIFE in Marathon County: 11th Edition”) that responders identified illegal drug use in Marathon County as the number-one problem needing to be dealt with, since drug use and addiction doesn’t just affect users, but also their families and the entire community. The Marathon County Jail was reported to be 70% over capacity, with most inmates having been convicted due to drugs or drug-related activities.

Wright’s idea?

To create a therapeutic horticulture garden to offer inmates a positive activity — learning about and practicing horticulture — with rehabilitative facets and even vocational possibilities that could help participants secure a job after being released from jail.

So, she worked last fall and winter with the City of Wausau and Marathon County to secure a place for the garden that was:

  • Visible
  • Welcoming
  • Within walking distance from the Marathon County Jail

The chosen vacant lot (formerly occupied by Vino Latte) met all 3 criteria and was approved by the Wausau City Council. Since then, the soil was tested and gardening has begun . . .

Huber inmates and community volunteers (including Wausau Mayor Robert Mielke) planted trees at Gaining Ground Gardens on June 1. (Photo courtesy of Joy Slatton.)

The first gardening event was held on June 1, 2019, when 7 Huber inmates planted 20 fruit trees at Gaining Ground Gardens that were provided through donations made by Open Door Marathon County and Greater Wausau Christian Services. This orchard was the idea of Christopher Wilke after seeing the positive effects that a community orchard had for Chicago neighborhoods.

The garden provides value to our community by offering a beautiful space at a busy intersection and by proudly demonstrating that both the City of Wausau and Marathon County see value in green space.

The gardens and orchards not only beautify places left behind in communities but they also offer therapeutic benefits, including:

  • A sense of purpose and belonging
  • Strengthened vocational skills
  • Decreased levels of stress due to sun exposure and interaction with plants and soil

Horticulture therapy is not for everyone, but it is a tool that can help with the prevention and treatment of illnesses, much like art or music therapy. It’s a universal commonality: to plant a seed and watch it grow. People can get engaged no matter how old, from a 2-year old to a person in their 90s.

The Gaining Grounds Garden was created solely with private donations. Hsu Growing Supply donated compost, and police officers and other community members donated several plants.

In addition to the fruit trees, Gaining Ground Gardens currently has 4 raised beds with tomatoes, peppers, cabbage, broccoli, and herb plants. A native plant area is in the works, with a demonstration area planned to offer ideas for members and volunteers to use in their own gardens.

Huber inmates and community volunteers assemble raised garden beds for Gaining Ground Gardens. Participants help purchase supplies, build, plant, and maintain the garden space. (Photo courtesy of Brianna Wright.)

With financial support, the garden also aims to have walkways, birdhouses, additional beds, rain barrels, and a garden shed in the future. Donations to the Gaining Ground Gardens project may be directed to UW Extension, ATTN: Gaining Ground Gardens, 212 River Drive, Wausau, WI 54403.

Community members can also get involved by becoming a mentor — Volunteer opportunities abound to help provide participants with information on gardening, guidance, and positive advice on directions to go in life. If interested in becoming a volunteer mentor, please contact Brianna Wright at or 715-261-1230.

Wright also started a similar garden at the Marathon County Juvenile Facility (7015 Packer Dr., Wausau), where shelter residents planned and planted their own garden that they can access and take care of. The youth started some of the plants over the winter that will soon be transplanted into the Gaining Ground Gardens.

Two potato plants that Marathon County Juvenile Detention Center youth started from a potato tuber (seed potato) earlier this spring. Soon it will be planted at Gaining Ground Gardens. (Photo courtesy of Kaitlyn Bernarde.)

Wright sums up her work with the gardens like this:

“It comes back to providing education. Providing opportunities for people. Providing opportunities to show that we all belong to this one community. This is a starting point and we are building something Marathon County and the City of Wausau should truly be proud of. We are treating all community members equally and demonstrating that we are welcoming to all.”

Kaitlyn_BernardeKaitlyn Bernarde

4-H Program Coordinator  |  University of Wisconsin Extension–Cooperative Extension

Kaitlyn Bernarde is the Marathon County 4-H Program Coordinator for UW-Extension, where she has worked since April 2018. She is a graduate of Marathon High School, has a bachelor’s degree in Political Science, divides her time between volunteer management and expanding access to 4-H programs. Her passion is strengthening Marathon County youth and adults via education, opportunities, and experiences. In her free time, you can find her exploring Wisconsin with her husband, consuming the news of the day, and trying a new cup of coffee with her family.  Email Kaitlyn Bernarde.

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