Life Lessons in the Garden

Collard greens and kale

Collard greens and kale ready for picking, with Garry hard at work in the SHS garden in the background.

The sun was beaming on the Swope Health Services gardens at mid-morning as the gardeners began assembling to plan out the day’s work.

The gardeners are all members of the adult Community Psychiatric Rehabilitation Program (CPRP), along with Lenise James, Community Support Specialist.

Today’s tasks involved examining the crops already planted and then preparing two beds: one for sweet potatoes and one for zucchini.

Gardening empowers the participants, giving them specific tasks and focus.

Participants follow their interests: Garry takes a shovel and makes short work of preparing the bed for planting; Antwan, who aspires to be a herpetologist, inspects the garden for bugs – he finds earthworms, grubs and a caterpillar and he’s happy there are no signs of Japanese beetles. Stephan relishes the task of harvesting collard greens.

About 15 individuals in the CPRP participate in the gardening activity two or three days a week, weather permitting.

They plan for three seasons, rotating crops in the eight beds, and then they take care of watering, weeding and generally nurturing the plants to harvest.

Sweet potatoes

Abera Kelecho shows Lorena and Stephan how to plant sweet potatoes.

“We have a good time,” Lenise says, with her gardeners nodding in agreement. The gardens are a tangible expression of caring and nurturing, raising up tiny seedlings, and ultimately, cooking and eating the bounty that comes from the plants.

“It’s a little like raising children,” said Clarence, a program participant. “They start out so small and helpless, and then before you know it, they’re teenagers and young adults and ready to go on.”

This year’s garden program included a class on tomatoes, presented by the Kansas City Community Garden, and hands-on experience in planting and tending vegetables and herbs. Lenise notes it also gives some of the members a chance to teach the others. Some have experience and enjoy sharing memories and insights with others.

Abera Kelecho, case manager, joins the group this morning to help with planting sweet potatoes.  There’s plenty of lively chatter as he demonstrates how to separate the tender plants and prepare them for planting.

Lorena and zucchini

Lorena carefully positions the seedling zucchini in the garden.

Novice gardener Lorena listens intently and follows the guidance, earning praise from Abera.

“When I started, I didn’t want to touch the dirt,” she said. “Now I love it.”

The garden gives the group a chance to plan for the future as well as remember the past. Every year, the team dedicates a memorial to honor fellow gardeners who recently passed away.

This year’s memorial will be a large planter, filled with healthy and thriving herbs. The herbs will join the other plants when harvested in creating meals like collards and cornbread.

“They are so delicious,” Clarence said. Soon the team was busy recalling past meals from the garden while making suggestions for the next one.

Six members of the CPRP team, led by Sonya Bolden-Oakley, Supervisor, support the partnership that produces and manages the garden.

Co-leads are Lenise and Mark McIlroy, an experienced gardener and community support specialist.  The program is also supported with a grant from Kansas City Community Gardens.



Additional photos provided by Rosie, a program participant, showing the fruits of the 2017 garden: watermelon, tomatoes ripening on the vine, collard greens and peppers

Growing Confidence with the SHS Community Garden

On any given day, you can find about a dozen urban farmers in the yard behind Swope Health Services Central Facility. It’s home to a community garden planned, planted, tended and harvested by participants in the SHS Adult Day Program.

The six raised beds hold the bulk of the organic crops, and two hay bales hold an experimental planting of acorn squash and zucchini. The garden includes tomatoes, collards, kale, arugula, lettuce, watermelon, cucumbers, okra and sweet potatoes. Pots hold a variety of herbs and strawberries.

But the gardens produce more than crops, said Lenise James, Community Support Specialist in the Community Psychiatric Rehabilitation-Adult Day Program. The SHS Community Garden also helps program participants grow skills and confidence. They learn how to strengthen their seedlings with fertilizer, how to protect them from threats like bugs. They relish the approach of harvest and the cooking and feasts that follow.

“It’s very healing to be out here,” Lenise noted. “It gives people a sense of mastery over what they do. They show self-sufficiency in gardening and in cooking.”


Views of the summer crops, clockwise from top left: The tomato bed holds a mix or tomato varieties – hybrids, heirlooms, cherry tomatoes, Cherokee purple and goliath. An overview of the beds with collards, two kinds of kale and Swiss chard. The well-tended Venus flytrap. A strawberry fountain temporarily located near the building. Cucumbers with cages to promote vertical growth, bedded with dill and okra. A big pot holds parsley, basil and other herbs at the edge of the pepper bed full of sweet peppers, chili peppers, Anaheim peppers and tomatillo.

Recently, the gardeners learned first-hand about the harlequin beetle that attacked the organic garden. Volunteers from the Kansas City Community Gardens found the bugs and explained the lifecycle, from egg to nymph to adult. The gardeners used a dust (made from crushed chrysanthemums) to repel the beetles from their organic crops. They also learned a surprisingly easy way to catch the beetles.

“If you place a linoleum tile in the garden, the beetles like to gather under it,” Lenise explained. “Then you can just lift up the tile and catch them.”

Gardening is an almost year-round program, operated at SHS as a team effort between program participants and SHS associates Mark McIlroy, Ozella (Renae) Stone, Christina Gossage-Camacho, Eliis Walls and Lenise. Supervisor Grace Okonta leads the program. The SHS Community Garden program has been in existence for about six years, launched with assistance from the Kansas City Community Gardens and the University of Missouri Extension office.

There are 15 gardeners in the program. They begin planning in February and meet at least weekly. They vote to determine the coming year’s crops, work out how to rotate the plantings across the beds, and plan for three seasons of harvest – spring, summer, and fall.

In peak growing season, gardeners take on a variety of daily tasks. One man comes early to water, and another spends time weeding and carefully tends the plants. One gardener uses a walker but keeps the commitment to the garden and fellow gardeners. Another, at age 76, has been gardening since childhood and enjoys sharing his knowledge with others.

A close bond develops between the gardeners as well as with the plants they cultivate. Lenise noted that one gardener kept to himself, but when the team learned that he likes bugs, they made arrangements to get him a Venus fly-trap. The carnivorous plant is now flourishing under his care.

“I see how much they enjoy it,” Lenise said. “The teamwork is incredible.”