Tucked away in a quiet corner inside the Forensic Psychiatric Hospital is an oasis of sorts—a therapeutic community garden that provides a serene place for gathering and relaxation outdoors. There, a series of garden beds overflowing with fresh rhubarb, sweet tomatoes, crisp carrots, bee-friendly flowers and more encircle the space known as Savoury Gardens.
“We thought, ‘wouldn’t it be great to offer staff a morale building opportunity that is both healthy and increases connection with peers?’”
The garden’s roots stretch back to 2018 when staff and patients began making garden boxes in the hospital’s woodshop. As they prepped the lumber and sanded the edges, the idea of an on-site staff garden began to take shape.
“We thought, ‘wouldn’t it be great to offer staff a morale building opportunity that is both healthy and increases connection with peers?’” said Charlene Dozzi, a rehabilitation worker, who also led the horticulture program at the hospital.
“From there, we continued to build boxes and ensured that patients were able to have a similar experience for growing their own produce, herbs or flowers, like sunflowers, garlic, zucchini, strawberries and others.”
According to Dozzi, the response has been overwhelming. There is a high demand for allotment plots, with waiting lists each year of staff looking to participate. To help accommodate this demand, the team have been adding more planting real estate by building additional garden boxes, though she admits the pandemic alleviated some of this pressure.
“Dealing with COVID-19 provided an opportunity for staff waiting for a box to get involved earlier, as many staff already holding a box took a year or two hiatus and were willing to share their box for people who were physically working at the hospital.”
A few patients at the hospital have also been bitten by the gardening bug, and take pride in caring for and watching their plants grow—often inviting Dozzi for a tour of their garden while sharing the techniques they used.
“Being the provider of the beds has given me an alternate way to connect with both patients and staff, as they use me as the go-to for questions about gardening. Patients will also track me down and put in their specific plant requests.”
"Being outside, having a beautiful space in which to sit, eat, visit and even spend time gardening has been, in my opinion, a great gift to the hospital. Don’t we all need a respite on occasion?”
The initiative has also brought a striking physical change, adds Dozzi. With help from more than 50 patients who volunteered in various capacities, the horticulture team helped transform what was once a gravel lot into a “lovely oasis.” A meandering stone path leads visitors through an arbor entryway to Serenity Garden, a peaceful upper area lined with lush plantings that serve up plenty of green garden pleasure. When visitors are not busy harvesting, they can sit on a bench to eat their lunch, pull a weed or two or simply pause at the footbridge to admire the beauty.
“The process has certainly been a labour of love, sweat and thankfully no tears! I’ve been happy to be a part of it. Being outside, having a beautiful space in which to sit, eat, visit and even spend time gardening has been, in my opinion, a great gift to the hospital. Don’t we all need a respite on occasion?” Dozzi said.
As part of the program’s ongoing commitment to advancing cultural safety and humility, the garden will also provide a tranquil space where tradition, learning and knowledge will meet. Though not yet operational, the newly-built greenhouse will feature sacred herbs and medicines that may be harvested and used in traditional Indigenous approaches to healing and in ceremonies.
Gardeners have long supported the physical and mental health benefits that come with tending a green space. Gardening is a good form of aerobic exercise and could help boost strength, flexibility and endurance. Weeding, planting, pruning, harvesting and other gardening tasks work multiple muscle groups, which help contribute to healthier bones, muscles and joints.
“Gardening can be a very healing and grounding experience. As we nurture the earth and the plants that surround us, we also learn to nurture ourselves."
Research has also shown that gardening, or simple exposure to nature and sunlight for even as little as 90 minutes, can promote relaxation and release chemicals in the brain that relieve stress, reduce anxiety and depression, and lower blood pressure. In addition, many can reap the benefits of enjoying fresh and nutritious produce on their plate—the fruits of their own labour.
“Gardening can be a very healing and grounding experience. As we nurture the earth and the plants that surround us, we also learn to nurture ourselves,” said Peri Hanzouli, the professional practice lead for occupational therapy and vocational services at the Forensic Psychiatric Hospital. “Gardening also encourages us to move our bodies, breathe fresh air and socialize with one another.”
Dozzi invites everyone to tour the grounds, and asks for a small favour in return.
“The only thing we ask is not to remove any of the produce without permission from the owners. Yes, we admit those ripe tomatoes can be irresistible!”