Veggie garden brings healing to psychiatric patients

Food market garden in Lentegeur hospital has changed more than the look of the institution

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Tucked away behind one of the major psychiatric hospitals in the Western Cape, Lentegeur Hospital, buds a thriving vegetable garden.

The garden aids in the recovery of close to 100 patients, all thanks to the Spring Foundation, a non-profit organisation focussed on functional skills training, vocational training and the recovery of mental health patients.

The hospital, which was once infamous for looking like a prison instead of a place of healing, is now leading the way in reaffirming that gardening is indeed good for mental health.

There, every day, at the Lentegeur Market Garden, patients find solace, hope and comfort tending to a vast array of crops grown by themselves on a hectare of fertile land. They grow anyting from spinach to lettuce, cabbage, basil, rocket, green beans, artichokes and sweet potatoes.

According to the co-founder of the foundation, Dr John Parker, the garden provides the patients with an activity to do and they have mastered basic gardening skills.

Co-founder of the Spring foundation, Dr John Parker. Photo: Supplied.
Co-founder of the Spring foundation, Dr John Parker. Photo: Supplied

“There is growing evidence that gardening is very good for mental health. Apart of from the exercise and fresh air, there is also the element of putting a seed into the ground and seeing it grow.

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“This teaches the patients delayed gratification because they have to be patient and wait for the seeds to grow. All of these are very important in promoting mental health,” he says.

When the Spring Foundation was started in 2014, Meryl Smith, its founder, wanted to get involved in community development and give back to those less fortunate.

Working with the Lentegeur hospital felt right and she wanted to assist in developing hope in the psychiatric institution. She wanted the institution to evolve into a more positive community health centre as oppose to just being a place that locks people up away from society.

“The garden provides food, it provides training, and it provides therapy as well as recovery for the patients,” Smith explains.

Dr Parker says the property had a depressing appearance before they started. “When you came onto the property it felt more like a prison than a place of healing,” he says.

Growing a sustainable garden

With the help of various supporters, they were able to develop the model of a market garden. The garden, run along organic principles, sells to various organic outlets throughout Cape Town and directly to hospital staff and members of the community.

During the hard lockdown, the garden even contributed to various food kitchens.

The profits made from the garden assists the initiative in becoming sustainable and those working in the garden receive a stipend.

Together with the Spring Foundation, the garden has aided in the recovery of some of the patients and some have even gained skills for employment.

“We have seen a huge improvement in the mental and physical health of the patients working in the garden. So much so that it has facilitated their ability to be discharged and go home to their families. They become more positive, energised and even employable,” says Dr Parker.

A few patients who were trained in the garden now even have jobs in the farming sector, Smith adds.

Dr Parker reckons this shows the world that people with mental illnesses do not need to be cast aside and excluded from society, but that they too can become productive members of society.

Getting off to a rocky start

However, do not be fooled, getting this garden going was not easy.

First, they discovered that about 30cm to 50cm below the surface there was a hardened layer of calcrete.

“We literally had to bring in bulldozers and manually break down and remove it from the land. It has taken us years to get the soil right,” Dr Parker says.

Market access remains an on-going challenge, he says, but water infrastructure was another major one. However, thanks to Shoprite, they have overcome this hurdle.

Shoprite provided the Lentegeur Market Garden with a 5,000 litre water tank, piping and gutters together with gardening tools, compost, mulch, seedlings, herbs and fruit trees.

Pictured: Elsa Michaels with a patient at the Lentegeur Hospital Market Garden. Photo: Supplied.
Elsa Michaels with a patient at the Lentegeur Hospital Market Garden. Photo: Supplied

The retailer is also providing ongoing training for the full-time employees working in the garden as well as those who are working in other community gardens and small-scale farms in the area.

“We’re really grateful to Shoprite. Our garden serves so many purposes and we want to produce more crops so that it becomes more sustainable, and Shoprite is helping us to achieve our goals,” says Smith.

She adds that they are also happy to be learning eco-friendly methods of farming and how to take care of the soil.

Dr Parker says they are hoping to work with the Western Cape department of agriculture to develop their garden into a training hub for small farmers.

“We’d love the garden to grow even further and for each of the wards to develop its own small gardens. The big aspiration is for our patients to go home and grow food in their back yards,” he says.

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