The Glasshouse Botanic

Posted: December 17th, 2020

The Glasshouse Botanic Design is an inspiring new social enterprise initiative launched earlier this year, at East Sutton Park, an open women’s prison in Kent.

The brainchild of social entrepreneur Melissa Murdoch, and Kali Hamerton-Stove, the Project Director, the idea is to utilise the abandoned glasshouses that these days are to be found languishing at many prisons due to cuts in land-based services. Several ex-offenders at a time are taught how to propagate, grow and care for houseplants which are then offered for sale. The ex-offenders are prepared to the Royal Horticultural Society Level 2 horticultural qualification.

The hope is that on leaving prison, the now proficient trainees will find jobs in horticulture and rebuild their lives without re-offending. ‘We are dedicated to employing returning citizens and aim for a third of our workforce to be ex-offenders. The Ministry of Justice has been very supportive of the project,’ says Kali.

Serendipitously Melisa and Kali have caught the zeitgeist, as not only are houseplants enjoying a renaissance in popularity, but one of the few plus consequences of Covid is a surging interest in horticulture coupled with a growing awareness of its manifold benefits for mental health. It has been estimated that for every £1 spent by the NHS on gardening projects, £5 can be saved in reducing health costs.


‘By tending your plants, you are also gardening your inner space,’ writes Sue Stuart-Smith’s in her recently published book, ‘The Well-Gardened Mind.’  This is true for the three ex-offenders currently being trained at East Sutton. ‘We are all mothers, and feel nurturing the plants is a substitute for caring for our children,’ says Micaela. ‘As all our home leave was cancelled due to Covid, I just don’t know how my mental health would have survived, if it was not for working with the plants.’

Much to her great surprise Micaela has discovered a passion for gardening. ‘When I go home I am ripping out my Astro Turf immediately.’

Horticulturalist, Ed Gent, previously at Rochester Prison, teaches the women. He clearly is very proud of them and delights in their thirst for learning. All three fluently rattle off the Latin plant names and are already highly proficient in propagating and tending for the plants. ‘I check on the plants every evening,’ says Michaela. They have even learnt the extremely complicated technique of propagating ferns from the spores found on the underside of the fronds.

Before Covid hit, the original plan was to instal plantscaping (interior decorating using plants) for corporate clients. It is all the rage, Ebay sells office plant shelves and the popular gardening blog The Middle Sized Garden flagged up the vogue ‘How to decorate with indoor plants – latest trends’ in October. There is even a fortnightly #HouseplantHour on Twitter. Now, like so many other businesses, The Glasshouse has had to change tack and supplies plants for companies to send to their home-working employees. Each plant is delivered in chic handmade pots carefully wrapped in sustainable packaging by the women.

Brompton, Vodafone and COOK are just a few of the companies who have signed up for this service. Plants in an office are recognised to have myriad health spin-offs which include better concentration and, curiously, less eye strain to name two benefits.

The testimonies on the Glasshouse Botanics website are glowing:

‘Opening a box and discovering a plant inside brought me a surprising moment of joy. I am not really a plant person but a Pilea Peperomiodes now sits by my screen and brings me a little peace, calm and so much pleasure. The Glasshouse is a very cool thing on every level’: an employee of Cook.


We have made it a priority to support our employees working from home… sending plants to them was the best thing we’ve done. It’s made a big impact with our team’s mood and engagement’ says an employee of the Daggerwing Group.

Readers who live in East Kent will be delighted to hear that it is possible to buy the plants in person every Friday 12pm-3pm and Saturday 9.30am-12pm.

The plants come in several different sizes and prices ranging from £22.50 to a £200 + for statuesque specimens.

I am thrilled with my choice of a £40 ‘Phelbodium Aur Blue’, a plant proving popular with yoga teachers as they are good for purifying the air.

All profits are reinvested to expand the project.

East Sutton Park Farm Shop

Church Lane, Sutton Valence, Kent ME17 3DF. Access to the shop is via Church Lane.