By Natalie Boustead
‘Tap tap tap!’ I turn towards the greenhouse door knowing, without needing to look, who will be there. Sure enough, it’s, Jacob*, his arms laden with plants, as usual. Jacob collects discarded plants wherever he can; from the side of the road and from behind dumpsters. Sometimes one of the doctors or nurses he sees will give him a plant they’ve neglected, knowing he will understand how to bring it back to life. Every Tuesday, without fail, Jacob shows up cradling yet another cast away plant with a big smile on his face.
This is just one of the magical moments at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) Sunshine Garden and greenhouse. The Sunshine Garden is a FoodShare Toronto program that, since 2002, has been connecting mental health patients to nature, food, and each other. Participants have said that gardening has been key to their healing; helping them stay sober and giving them a calming, peaceful refuge in times when life feels chaotic and ungrounded. For Jacob, the greenhouse is his “favourite place in the world,” where he spends several days a week nursing abandoned house plants and rare tropicals like the dragon fruit he cultivated at home, then brought to the greenhouse.
Recognizing the inherent healing power of tending to and growing vegetables and flowers both CAMH and FoodShare Toronto have ensured that this client-centred program has flourished over the years. Clients participate in a full season of organic food production, from planting seedlings in the spring to curing and replanting garlic bulbs in the fall.
The produce that’s grown is sold at a weekly market stand on-site and at special events throughout the year. Some of the produce is taken home by clients and some is donated to a local food bank. Throughout the winter, clients like Jacob get a chance to propagate and tend to a wide variety of houseplants, flower bulbs and seedlings for the following season.This ensures the Sunshine Garden is a year round haven to connect with nature.
I open the door for Jacob, and listen to him carefully explain the names of each plant he is holding: “This one is a Canna, and this is that yellow hibiscus I told you I was propagating at home from the cutting I took at the nurses’ station!” I learn something new every day from clients like Jacob, many of whom have many more decades of plant knowledge than I, and who, when allowed to access a greenhouse or a plot of earth, thrive alongside the plants they tend.
Natalie Boustead is the Community and Market Gardens Coordinator at FoodShare Toronto. The Sunshine Garden is one of the only full season organic gardens situated on mental health hospital grounds in North America. FoodShare Toronto is one of Canada’s Toronto’s leading food justice organizations, with more than 30 years of experience creating and maintaining programming that focuses on food access, food education and food-based policy at municipal and provincial levels.