There are reasons to be cheerful in 2021, and one bright spot is the patient garden refresh at Lyndhurst. This garden has been around for over 20 years and includes some large, wheelchair-accessible raised beds. Accessibility is key as Lyndhurst, part of Toronto Rehabilitation Institute at UHN, hosts the Brain and Spinal Cord Rehabilitation Program “for adults whose lives have changed because of brain injury, stroke, neurological conditions, and spinal cord injuries”. Here, the goal is improve patients’ functional abilities so that they can live as independently and happily as possible.

Patients Jessi Rate, Habib Masmoudi and Grace Inglis enjoy some fresh air and garden therapy led by Charlene Alton (Recreation Therapist hidden by the massive tomato plant) and Marc-André Gionet (Wellness Partner)

The pressures of COVID-19 and staffing levels meant that the garden team had to take a two-season pause. That left the patient garden in rough shape. It is flourishing again thanks to the efforts of Recreation Therapists like Nicole Leong and Charlene Alton, Wellness Partner Marc-André Gionet, the hard work of many patients, the supportive leadership of Paula Cripps-McMartin, plus coaching on gardening in a pandemic from Amanda Beales and the Bickle GROW garden team.

Patients took part in all rejuvenation efforts, taking out weeds, replacing 50% of the dried out dirt with rich soil, planting seedlings, watering and more. By using adaptive tools, often with long handles, they are able to help and feel proud of their accomplishments.

Marc-André and Jessi prepare the beds to plant seedlings. Adaptive tools make gardening way more accessible.

Previously, the patient garden has focused more on flowers, a feast for the eyes, but this year it’s also a feast for the belly, with a delightful cornucopia of fruits, veggies and herbs. That said, there is a lot of art in this garden. These patient-painted plant markers are fun and festive!

Many seedlings planted and Popsicle sticked, like zucchini, tomatoes – beefsteak and cherry, carrots, peas, squash, pumpkins, watermelon, peppers, lavender, cilantro, sage, rosemary

Nicole had another excellent idea on how to incorporate arts and crafts into the garden. Patients can paint flowerpots, then plant something in them to take care of. The plant and pot can brighten their room and when they leave, they can take a piece of garden home with them.

Patient-painted planter pots

To me the gardening program offers such a variety of benefits: being in nature, learning how to garden and take care of plants, learning about adapted gardening tools and socializing with others. While here, the patients have a lot of autonomy over the garden: choosing what to plant, caring for it from seed, choosing where in the garden to plant it and weeding and watering. It also allows us to incorporate other programs like arts and crafts, where patients have made painted garden signs, plant labels and decorative pots.

Nicole Leong, Recreation Therapist

Staff throughout Lyndhurst are excited about the garden and support it in their own ways. One Staff Psychologist, Dr. Martha McKay, donated her home-grown pepper seedlings to the garden. As staff in all capacities get excited about the garden, they bring their patients out to experience and enjoy it. The garden makes a lovely backdrop for physiotherapy, exercise or meditation.

Once the plants mature, the Occupational Therapy (OT) staff can use the harvest in therapy. They often do assessments of a patient’s ability to cook for themselves so they can cut up and saute some veggies from the garden. The best part is that they then get to eat it. Whether or not the eating is part of the assessment, it’s definitely a highlight!

The healing power of the Therapeutic Recreation Accessible Garden within the Spinal Cord Injury Program at Lyndhurst Centre has been enormous over the last 20 years.  This program assists patients in re-discovering or developing an interest in accessible gardening and provides them with many benefits that include the opportunity to trial adaptive gardening equipment; improve fine and gross motor functioning; improve mood; promote relaxation and socialization opportunities.  Additionally, this wonderful program provides patients with a meaningful and fulfilling activity that they can continue within their home and community post discharge. We in Therapeutic Recreation are very excited to have been able to offer this program to our patients during the pandemic, a time they need it most of all.

Charlene Alton, Recreation Therapist

COVID-19 has placed a lot of restrictions on how the team can implement programs. For the gardening group, this means limiting the number of patients that can attend the program at one time, spacing sufficiently, and masking. They run the program 2-3 times a week at minimum and patients participate as often as they please. This keeps the team on top of watering and weeding.

I had the chance to chat with Marc-André about what the garden means to him. His excitement was palpable:

The gardening group has many benefits and allows for patients who are interested to connect with the natural world and develop life skills, positive memories and new friendships. From soil preparation and weeding to sowing seeds and watering, the patients at Lyndhurst are involved in the entire gardening process. Patients have reported feeling much more relaxed and happier at the end of each group because it allows for them to “re-create” energy lost through stress and anxiety.

…I always like to remind patients that it doesn’t take a lot of money, time and/or space to experience feelings of joy and happiness. There are many plants, herbs and vegetables that can be grown accessibly indoors and outdoors. So, it’s really about showing patients the tools and ways that they can still enjoy this activity regardless on their abilities.

Gardening can help patients feel more motivated and energized to meet their other rehabilitation goals and therapies such as Occupational Therapy and Physiotherapy. Patients redevelop their fine-motor skills through the use of garden tools and playing around in the dirt. They get outdoors and enjoy the benefits that arise from being in the sun.

Our goal is to try, have a positive attitude, persistence and have fun!

Marc-André Gionet, Wellness Partner
Habib and Marc-André admire the peas