Therapeutic gardening bears fruit 
at local nonprofit

A walk in the woods or even just leaning on a tree at the bus stop—a regular connection to nature has been shown repeatedly to bring all of us better health. For those struggling with mental illness or substance abuse, one Northland nonprofit is making that healing interaction a daily reality.

“It’s digging in the dirt and having that sense of connection with something other than pavement,” says Jody Murphy. 

Murphy is the psychosocial rehabilitation manager at Tri-County Mental Health Services, a behavioral health safety-net provider serving Clay, Platte, and Ray counties. As an 18-year veteran of the organization, Murphy directly oversees the group’s North Star Club.

The club serves adults with more serious mental illnesses who come for morning and afternoon group activities as well as a lunch together. The group’s kitchen manager came up with the idea of a garden that could provide healthy fruits and vegetables for the daily lunches, act as a teaching tool for healthy eating, and serve as a therapeutic activity for the program participants.

With donated labor from the KCI Rotary Club, the new garden – complete with six raised beds and a compost area – was completed in March 2017 at the group’s main location at 3100 NE 83rd St. It’s created a positive ripple effect, says CEO Tom Petrizzo.

“The gardening is kind of a symbol of producing something that literally bears fruit,” he says. “There’s a sense of community; of being part of the garden; I think there’s also a sense of ownership. It’s not a public garden; it’s their garden.”

For a nonprofit that serves 8,200 people each year, Petrizzo says the therapeutic benefit from growing carrots, lettuce, peppers, okra and tomatoes has been a nice supplement to the other therapies provided by the health professionals on staff.

“It’s not just being connected to nature,” he says. “This is a nice complement to medication, to be engaged in an activity like gardening. It’s a natural health benefit.”

About eight to 10 participants regularly tend the garden, and another 10 to 15 work it intermittently. For one participant who used to grow okra with his grandfather, Murphy says the chance to grow his own okra has made a large impact on his overall demeanor.

“When he goes out to harvest it, he beams,” she says. “He’s smiling, and he likes to share it. You can tell that he has a sense of accomplishment.”

Lori Byl serves as the director of the community psychiatric program and employment services, and says the joy goes way beyond the garden fence.

“Their excitement is contagious to the staff,” she says. “It’s wonderful to watch and see.”

For more information about Tri-County Mental Health’s many programs, visit Tri-CountyMHS.org.