Just outside of Avon Park is a secret garden most people don't know about. A quiet pond surrounds an island landscaped with ferns, palms, banana plants and ginger. Stepping stones beckon the visitor to duck beneath an arch of foliage to discover a butterfly garden, a hibiscus garden, bamboo.
It feels more like Hawaii than Avon Park. There is even an orchid nursery and a rose garden. An old canoe-turned-planter sits at the water's edge. An oak canopy shades scenic walkways and a pond where the tilapia are spawning.
Where is this secret garden, and why don't more people know about it?
Because it's in a prison.
The nursery, as it's called, is on five acres of property at the Avon Park Correctional Institute. It's run by corrections officer Tommy Sauls, who has worked at the prison for 17 years and been in charge of the plant therapy program for three.
Sauls, an Avon Park native who graduated from Avon Park High School, manages 15 inmates who are given the privilege of working in the nursery. These men learn to pot and propagate plants, build greenhouses and provide upkeep of the stunning grounds.
Sauls' father worked as fire chief for APCI. And while corrections work was a big part of his life growing up, horticulture wasn't.
But he always enjoyed working with plants, said the soft-spoken man with quick eyes.
"I have a knack for it," he said, driving around the property in a golf cart with a bottle of rooting powder in the dashboard.
Sauls spends the entire day running the nursery. Inmates are in charge of different areas, such as the begonia greenhouse, the fern nursery or the misting tables, and while they work rather independently, it's obvious that Sauls has his eye on them and runs a tight ship.
While an inmate may get assigned to the program by the administration, it's Sauls who decides if he stays. If they show interest and participate, they get to stick around. If they perceive it as a holiday from hard labor, they're out.
Many of the plants in the nursery are produced right there. Sauls learned propagation techniques from the inmates who were in the program when he came on board, he said. He also does a lot of research on his own and looks for interesting plants in his neighborhood and elsewhere that he can propagate in the prison nursery.
Sauls said the program gives inmates a learning tool and a potential trade for when they re-enter society. The institution is currently working on a formal certification program.
"It's a great program," said one inmate whose name cannot be printed for confidentiality reasons. "He's a great boss man, knowledgeable, and he don't mind telling you to hit the books," the inmate added, referring to the extensive library of horticulture books available. The inmate said he's hoping to do some work in horticulture when he's released.
The APCI nursery was actually started in the early 1960s by Florida Federation of Garden Clubs Inc. as part of their garden therapy initiative. According to the FFGC website, the APCI nursery is nationally recognized and award-winning. "This ongoing project enhances the lives of the inmates who work in the nursery by building confidence and self esteem" the website reads.
The Garden Club of Sebring president Gloria Frances works regularly with Sauls, and club members often purchase plants from the APCI nursery because they are healthy and affordable, she stated.
Although Sauls' predecessors had many of the elements of the nursery in place before he arrived, Frances said she has been most impressed with the improvements under Sauls' watch as well as his creativity. The inside of the orchid house is as beautiful as it is functional, with a pyramid-shaped shelving unit built by the inmates, a whimsical stepping stone floor and a natural wood display with orchids growing on it. The men recently reframed the outside of the greenhouse in bamboo.
"He just comes up with the greatest ideas," said Frances, who explained how Sauls helped her club design floral centerpieces for a recent convention using plant materials grown at the nursery. He also has tapped into one inmate's artistic talents by having him paint clay pots.
APCI warden Tim Sheffield is a fan too. He said Sauls does a great job and "we need more like him." Sheffield said the plant therapy program is the best program they have at the institution.
Frances said this penal plant therapy program is the only one of its kind in the state, which is good for Sauls because he receives donations and materials from gardening clubs all over Florida, including Fort Myers and Punta Gorda.
In fact, the program is entirely supported by donations and the revenues he makes from public plant sales.
The plant material is donated or propagated as well. Even the warden's mother recently donated three crown-of-thorns plants, Sauls said with a grin.
The next public plant sale is scheduled for Saturday, Oct. 28, from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. For more information, call 453-3174.
If you find coming to buy your plants at a prison worrisome, don't. Warden Sheffield assured that the environment is safe. They plan to serve food as well so visitors can make a day of exploring the nursery, shopping for plants and having a bite to eat.
Sauls, whose name has been put forward for a statewide correctional officers' award, enjoys what he does and feels that the inmates respect him and appreciate the opportunity to work and learn skills in the nursery. His biggest challenge, he said, was growing the finicky orchids, and he recently invited an expert in to give them some tips. His greatest joy is learning things, like that certain orchids like to be hanging outside rather than in a greenhouse.
"I put a lot of time and patience into (the nursery)," he said.