Gardening for the mind, body and spirit

A new addition to the recreation program for mental health care inpatients at St. Joseph’s Health Care London is flourishing – literally.
Judith gardening
Judith, a patient at Parkwood Institute’s Finch Family Mental Health Care Building, has rediscovered her passion for gardening through a newly created therapeutic recreation program.

Digging into the benefits of gardening is quickly growing into an empowering and healing activity for mental health care patients at St. Joseph’s Health Care London (St. Joseph’s).

Recreation therapists at the Finch Family Mental Health Care Building at St. Joseph’s Parkwood Institute recently introduced planting, weeding and harvesting vegetables to patients interested in tending an on-site garden in partnership with the organization’s Nourish Project team. 

“Gardening allows patients a chance to get out into the fresh air, connect with nature, socialize, engage in physical activity, enjoy new experiences and feel productive,” says Sula Larochelle, a therapeutic recreation specialist in the Mental Health Treatment and Rehabilitation program at Parkwood Institute. “We discovered that patients are also reminiscing about the gardens they grew up with or once tended. Others have spoken about wanting to start their own gardening projects one day. It’s giving patients an opportunity to share positive memories and new experiences with each other.” 

The Finch Family Mental Health Care Building provides care for individuals with severe and persistent mental illness in need of longer-stay specialized mental health care. As part of the care team, therapeutic recreation professionals assist patients with exploring, resuming and pursuing leisure interests with an optimal level of independence. 

Each weekday, therapeutic recreational specialists accompany different inpatient groups to the garden, where they are supplied with water, sunblock, hats and gardening tools to plant, weed, water, or just enjoy the space to rest. 

Judith, a mental health care patient at Parkwood Institute, says the garden has been a great way to soak in some sunshine and interact with others.  

“It’s nice to come here and be involved,” says Judith. “I enjoy helping out in the garden and it’s nice to be able to meet up and chat with people.” 

Judith gardening
“Gardening brings back a lot of good memories,” says mental health care patient Judith, who recently took up the activity again as part of a therapeutic recreation program at St. Joseph’s Health Care London.

The 3,128 square-foot garden was developed in 2021 as part of St. Joseph’s Nourish Project led by members St. Joseph’s Food and Nutrition Services (FNS) team with a goal to harness the power of food to build health for people and the planet. Created in collaboration with Urban Roots London – a non-profit organization that revitalizes underused city land for agriculture – the garden produces various herbs and vegetables, including tomatoes, potatoes, radishes, broccoli, peppers, green beans, carrots, and scallion, which are used in food production for patients and residents to enhance their meals. The space also enables the Nourish Project team to test the potential for on-site food growing and explore new ways to reduce costs and waste, including food packaging. 

To maintain the garden and foster a sense of community, the Nourish Project team and Urban Roots reached out to program areas at St. Joseph’s that might be interested in taking part in the garden pilot.   

“It’s been great for patients to get involved and reap the benefits that the garden can provide,” says Deana D'Ambrosio, Nourish Project Lead and FNS Coordinator. “Urban Roots staff have also been extremely supportive as some of the patients are learning new gardening skills.”  

In addition to mental health care inpatients, residents from St. Joseph’s Veterans Care Program and volunteers and staff from various programs are also rolling up their sleeves to help in the garden. All have enjoyed the opportunity and are now seeing the fruits of their labour as the final harvest of the season takes place. 

“For our patients, recreation therapy is about connecting with others, finding purpose through meaningful activity, feeling a sense of accomplishment, and sustaining hope,” says Sula. “Offering gardening as a therapeutic activity in partnership with Urban Roots London and FNS provides an avenue for well-being for our patients. To feel part of something that is positive can be very healing.”

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