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Mental health program pilots a therapeutic vegetable garden

“One of our patients told me, ‘I still feel depressed, but after I’ve been working in the garden I feel better. Less depressed.’” Melissa Flores Fioravanti said.

ARMHS workers who helped plant and care for the garden, from left to right: Justin Jeffry, Melissa Flores Fioravanti, Mary Lee Vang, Peter Dinh, Mai Ku Moua and Nafiso Afyare.
Courtesy of Community-University Health Care Center

For years, there was an apartment building across the street from Community-University Health Care Center (CUHCC), a nearly 50-year-old University of Minnesota-run clinic based in Minneapolis’ Phillips neighborhood. About a year ago, the university bought the apartment building and tore it down, planning to one day turn the space into a clinic parking lot. But the lot didn’t appear overnight, and Melissa Flores Fioravanti, program manager for CUHCC’s Adult Rehabilitative Mental Health Services (ARMHS), started to imagine the space that remained as more than a place to put cars.

There was possibility in that empty lot, Fioravanti figured: If grass and weeds could grow there, why couldn’t vegetables? And, because she is a mental health professional, the vegetable garden Fioravanti envisioned wouldn’t just be a place for growing produce — it could also be a place for patents enrolled in the ARMHS program to experience the therapeutic benefits of rolling up their sleeves and digging in the dirt.

“I knew that there would be a parking lot there eventually,” she said. “But I asked, ‘Until then, can we use it for a garden?’ ”

Seeds of wellness

University officials eventually gave Fioravanti the go-ahead to cultivate the empty lot, but well before then, she began researching the mental health benefits of gardening. Each year in the ARHMS program, mental health workers like Fioravanti and her six colleagues help patients with diagnosed mental illnesses ranging from mild to severe and persistent develop a treatment plan that outlines specific mental health wellness goals; with the empty-lot garden, she hoped to create a program that would offer clear rehabilitative benefits that would coordinate with the goals outlined in patients’ treatment plans. 

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“I researched, ‘What is therapeutic gardening?’ and ‘What are the mental health benefits of gardening?’ ” Fioravanti said. “At CUHCC, ARMHS workers walk beside the client and help them. So I got online and tried to find out more about the benefits, to see how gardening could support our patents’ rehabilitation. I also wanted to see if other programs like ours planted gardens alongside their patents.”

What she found was that there weren’t a lot of mental health rehab gardens out there.

“I didn’t find any examples of programs like the one I was imagining, at least not here in the Twin Cities,” Fioravanti said, “but I did find literature that gave me some ideas of how to use gardening as a metaphor in the therapeutic process, such as when you are weeding your garden how that can become a metaphor for weeding out the negative things in your life.”

Fioravanti could see the practical applications of the project. She could even imagine potential research projects surrounding the garden and its impact on patients. But spring was fast approaching. They’d never have a garden if they didn’t start planting.

More enthusiasm than experience

Fioravanti and her colleagues didn’t get final approval to start working on the garden until May. As the weather warmed, a family friend volunteered to till the ground to make it ready for planting. Many of CUHCC’s Hmong patients have experience working in gardens, but most of the others involved in the project did not, so they used the experience as an opportunity for education, spending days learning about how to put seeds and seedlings in the ground, how to water, how tell weeds from plants.   

“Everybody was kind of nervous at first because on our team we only have one or two people who have any experience gardening,” Fioravanti said. “I have none myself. I thought, ‘I don’t know what we’re getting ourselves into, but I know this is going to be great.’ ”

Melissa Flores Fioravanti
MinnPost photo by Andy Steiner
Melissa Flores Fioravanti

The ARMHS team developed a set of ground rules and expectations for participation.

“To participate in the garden, it has to be part of the client’s treatment plan,” Fioravanti explained. “We approached our clients and asked who would be interested in doing gardening as part of their treatment. We let the clients know we have this garden, how the garden might be helpful to them, how they need to commit to spending time working in it, and then we leave it up to them to decide,” About 15 patients signed up.

The team’s enthusiasm felt infectious, and local businesses donated seeds, plants, coffee grounds for fertilizer and gardening tools.

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As the garden began to take shape, it drew attention from clinic workers, patients and community members. This summer’s weather — with its ample rain, sunny days and moderate temperatures — has been perfect for vegetable gardens, Fioravanti said, so even though the gardening team was still planting into early July, produce output has been steady.

Moving the therapeutic process out of the clinic and into the garden is ideally suited for the clinic’s patients, many of whom come from poor immigrant and refugee backgrounds, said CUHCC CEO Colleen McDonald Diouf.

In the ARMHS program, mental health workers build therapy “into real hands-on life skills,” she said. Patients respond to the common-sense approach to therapy and treatment, which helps align healing with everyday life activities. “This garden is a perfect way for us to marry those pieces together. Sometimes effective conversations about building skills can happen when the patient and the therapist are out doing something, not just sitting there in a room. It just gives another pathway to engage people in improving their quality of life and managing their mental illness.”

Harvest time

Summer is officially over, but one morning last week, the CUHCC garden was still going strong, with peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers and squash ripe and ready for harvest. If the weather stays warm, Fioravanti said that ARMHS workers and patients will keep spending time in the garden into October, when they’ll start doing bed prep for winter.

Diouf said she’s excited about all the activity that’s been taking place right next door to the clinic.

“People are still out there working on the garden all the time,” she said. “You can see it just flourishing. The sense of pride people are feeling from it is clear. The smiles, the sense of energy around it has been excellent.”

Vegetables grown this summer
Courtesy of Community-University Health Care Center
Vegetables grown this summer in the Community-University Health Care Center garden.

Next year, if the team is able to continue cultivating the lot, Fioravanti said she hopes to be able to conduct a thorough survey of the impact garden work is having on patients in the AMHRS program. This year, she’s only really been able to hold informal conversations with participants, who’ve told her that they appreciate the opportunity garden work gives them to socialize with one another, to learn new skills, to be exposed to other cultures — and to simply feel better.

“One of our patients told me, ‘I still feel depressed, but after I’ve been working in the garden I feel better. Less depressed.’ ” Fioravanti said. “Another patient said, ‘Working in the garden is good because I have to get out of the house and care of my plants or otherwise they’ll die. Then I get out here in the garden and I end up feeling better the rest of the day.’ That’s exactly the outcome we were hoping for.”