Community garden offers therapy for mentally ill

Diane Watts, a nurse for Mental Health Resources INC, views the productive garden that has been cultivated by patients. (Staff photo: Sharna Johnson)

By Tonya Garner: CNJ staff writer

The garden is called many names — “community garden,” “therapeutic garden” and “living garden” — and it serves as many purposes as it has names.

The gardeners responsible for tending to the plants suffer from a host of mental problems, including schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder and severe depression.

The garden is located at Clovis’ Mental Health Resources, a facility that offers therapy on an outpatient basis to mentally ill patients, according to Diane Watts, who is a nurse at the facility.

The purpose of the 20-by-40 foot vegetable garden is to enrich the clients’ lives by teaching them life skills.

DeeAnn Kreutzer, art therapist at MHR, said for some of these clients turned gardeners, even simple things like remembering to take medication or taking a shower can be a feat.

“Things you and I take for granted, can be difficult for our clients,” Kreutzer said. The staff at MHR use several different types of therapy to assist clients in dealing with the pressures of every-day life.

The idea for a garden was broached during a group therapy session at the facility.

“The clients who were participating in the session actually brought it up,” Watts said.

Watts and Kreutzer received help from MHR groundskeeper Gene Phillips.

“He tilled the soil, did some initial planting and watered,” Watts said. “The tilling of the soil was so helpful, it was something we couldn’t do.”

The clients purchased the seeds, although Kreutzer and Watts also bought seeds and supplies.

“We got more seeds than we imagined,” Kreutzer said. “We have some for our next garden.”

The clients were urged to plant seeds that would produce vegetables they would enjoy eating.

According to Watts, one particular client has led an exceptionally difficult life and suffered a severe head trauma. The client chose okra to plant in the garden.

Unfortunately, the first planting of okra died. Watts said she called all over town until she found two new okra plants, which succeeded in producing plenty of okra for the client to enjoy.

Kreutzer said the clients have done the majority of the work involved with the garden. She said the staff tried to remain in the background.

“We have even conducted therapy sessions in the garden,” Kreutzer said. “We talk while they work or harvest their vegetables.”

Watts said the garden was purposeful for clients in that it required hoeing, chopping and weeding. She said she used those activities as an example of how important physical exercise is in a healthy lifestyle.

The garden was also rewarding, Watts said. The clients watched the plants grow from seedlings to mature vegetables.

Not all the lessons taught through the garden have been positive. Watts said about 80 percent of the garden was destroyed by a storm about 2 1/2 months after the first planting.

“The clients were grossly disappointed,” Watts said. “They dug their heels in and replanted.”

She said the experience taught them that success can come even through hard times.

A tour of the garden today reveals zucchini the size of a newborn baby and pumpkins too large for one person to carry. Rows of corn, tomatoes, onions, carrots and a few varieties of peppers also thrive. A few flowers, including marigolds, have been planted to add beauty.

The sunflowers lining the far side of the garden were planted strictly to feed the birds. Ground squirrels and rabbits pay daily visits, while a client-made scarecrow stands sentinel over the spread.

Watts and Kreutzer are in agreement the first client garden was a huge success in production and lessons learned.

“To see the clients smiling when they come in with a huge watermelon,” Kreutzer said, “that was really awesome.”

The clients are planning a feast to be held at MHR. Everyone plans to bring their favorite dish made with the fresh ingredients picked from their garden.