Gardening connects residents

Sergio Guajardo carefully places a small tomato plant into the soil, says a silent prayer and reaches for his watering can.

At 79, Sergio tends his garden plants the way his mother modelled decades ago.

“It is spiritual for me. I always say the same blessing my mother said,” says Sergio. “I’m still very connected to my roots.”

Sergio grew up in Chile and remembers his mother depending on their garden to feed their family of nine. Now living in St. Teresa Place in Calgary, Sergio enjoys reconnecting with the physical and spiritual aspects of gardening at the Covenant Care facility.

“I like digging my hands in the dirt, watering the plants.”

Sergio helped plant this year’s garden at St. Teresa Place, an effort that began indoors months earlier. In January, recreation therapist Mandy Wright ordered a three-tiered garden stand with grow lights and room for 12 garden trays so more residents could enjoy the many benefits of gardening beyond Calgary’s short growing season.

“I wanted to bring the garden to the residents inside and bring some life into the building in the cold months while we were waiting for spring to really come,” says Mandy.

Sergio Guajardo prepares to transplant his vegetables in the outdoor garden bed at St. Teresa Place.

In April, residents started meeting for a weekly garden club. They began by choosing which vegetables they wanted to grow and germinating their seeds before transplanting them in seedling trays. When the plants grew, they were transitioned into small pots. Residents continued watering and caring for their garden trays until the plants were ready to transplant in the outdoor garden beds in early June.

Resident Sylvia Mischanchuk grew up on a farm in Manitoba and remembers helping her parents in their large garden — weeding, catching potato beetles and enjoying fresh produce.

“I love plants. I like the nurturing aspect of it, watching things grow.”

Sylvia chose to plant kale, tomatoes and peas. And while she says her peas “kind of kicked the bucket,” she’s very proud of how her kale is growing, and she looks forward to enjoying her tomato harvest.

“Just eating a tomato as you would eat an apple — I used to do that a lot as a kid,” says Sylvia. “And home-grown is so much tastier. It’s delicious and nutritious.”

The underlying goal of the garden club is to improve mood and reduce seasonal depression, and Mandy says there is a lot of research that shows the therapeutic benefits of gardening. Throughout the group’s experiences, Mandy has observed that caring for and being with plants has helped bring residents together.

“Every time the residents come in, the interactions are so positive when they’re interacting with the plants and reminiscing about what they used to grow, times spent in the garden and just being out in nature. It really changes the mood of a group when you have something alive to care for and can see how your love and connection actually help something grow.”

And with COVID-19 restrictions placing limits on visitors and recreation activities, Mandy says residents were able to meet in smaller groups on their respective units. She says it actually helped foster connection.

“Each group of residents got to know their neighbours better,” says Mandy. “They were very neighbourly. If someone couldn’t make it to garden club, they would care for that person’s plants.”

Sylvia enjoyed the camaraderie of gardening in a small group. But she also thinks some of the joy of gardening comes from the tactile experience.

“We loved playing in the dirt. That’s one thing that stood out to me, playing in the dirt. It comes from childhood, but it’s a really good sensory experience and a good social experience. It’s been one I won’t forget.”

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