An educational program that started as a way to help county jail inmates change their lives and develop practical skills has evolved into a popular nursery open to the public.

North County Detention Facility inmates operate the Jail Industries Plant Nursery under the supervision of their instructor, Rick Stern. The public is invited to browse several acres of plants at spring and fall sales, or by appointment, at the jail garden located next to the Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport. The nursery includes 30,000 annuals, perennials, trees, vegetable starts, vines, shrubs, and groundcover grown in compost without fertilizers or pesticides.

The students have created several demonstration gardens at the entrance featuring a hummingbird habitat, a garden with plants that attract butterflies and an area of drought-tolerant plants that do well in this climate.

The extensive gardens have become the darlings of professional gardeners and landscapers, and many send prospective clients and customers to the reliable displays to get a good visual overview of plants, shrubs and trees for their own projects.

The five-acre jail garden includes two acres set aside for food production, with produce going first to the jail kitchen and the remainder going to nonprofit groups, including the Ceres Project and the Redwood Empire Food Bank.

Customers can purchase 4-inch pots of tomato, pepper, squash and herb plants for 50 cents each. Plants in gallon containers sell for $2.50, and the largest plants, such as trees in 15-gallon pots, sell for $25.

"Ninety percent or more of what we sell is to individual homeowners. The prices are definitely part of the attraction," Stern said.

Stern and his students greet customers who have called and made an appointment to buy plants. He typically inquires first about what the person is seeking, then assigns someone to accompany the customer to help make selections.

"The students are learning about customer service. You get pretty good attention," Stern said.

There's a strong connection between local volunteer organizations and the jail garden. The Sonoma County Master Gardeners help out during plant sales answering questions from shoppers, and the drought-tolerant "Superstar" plants they recommend for this area are grown at the nursery.

In addition to selling plants directly to the public, the program donates vegetable seeds and starts to area schools and nonprofit groups, such as iGrow and Daily Acts. Volunteers with horticulture experience are encouraged to participate as guest speakers, and the program welcomes public assistance for the plant sales, which attract more than 500 people.

Sandy Metzger, a Master Gardener for 12 years, has been volunteering with the jail garden for more than six years. She considers it an undiscovered horticultural resource and is impressed by the wide variety of plants for sale.

"It's a gem. It's a great resource for the community. The shade houses are jam-packed with 4-inch pots, gallons and bigger containers. It's an amazing variety," Metzger said.

She noted that in recent years, both the Master Gardener program and Jail Industries Nursery have been growing more native plants to meet customer demand for drought-tolerant plants. Many of the Master Gardeners contribute cuttings to the program, and Stern's students learn how to propagate them.

Stern, who has a bachelor's degree in organic farming, a community college certificate in horticulture therapy and a teaching credential, has been responsible for creating and expanding the jail's agriculture education program during the past 19 years. He's a Sonoma County Office of Education instructor and has shaped the program to focus on food production, ornamental plants and landscape installation and maintenance. Students learn about plant propagation, identification, compost techniques and irrigation installation and maintenance.

He knows that most students aren't planning to look for nursery or plant-related jobs when they are released, although some have pursued further horticulture education or started their own landscaping businesses. The work skills they're learning, however, are useful in many career fields, Stern said.

Although the area doesn't have security fences preventing inmates from leaving, Stern said those in the nursery program know it's best to stay focused on work and adhere to rules, since they're all at the end of their jail terms.

In 19 years, only one person has walked away from the property, he said.