Meredith Jensen is doing some gardening on a sunny day in a secluded part of Athens, Ohio.
“I’m working on our pollinator garden beds,” she said. “Which are a bunch of fun flowers that’ll help attract butterflies, bumble bees, you name it.”
Her partner Jamie Betit pushes a full wheel barrow to fill the other raised beds.
“We’ve got horse and goat compost here that’s packed full of nutrients, topsoil and ash,” he said.
Jensen and Betit are the Executive Director and Outreach Coordinator --respectively-- for the Chrysalis Garden, a 12 bed therapy garden at the new Serenity Grove Women’s Recovery House.
They, like other organizations battling the addiction crisis in the Ohio Valley region, are experimenting with horticultural therapy as a way to help people battling a substance use disorder on the path of recovery.
“The same time as you’re growing yourself as a person, you can physically grow food that nourishes your body but also nourishes your soul,” Jensen said.
The plan is for residents of Serenity Grove to work in the garden during their leisure time. While most of the beds are empty now, they soon will be full of all kinds of produce for the home.
Other addiction treatment and recovery organizations around the Ohio Valley region have bought into the idea. The Hope Center in Lexington is just one of the many organizations that have therapy gardens in Kentucky. And the Gro Huntington project in West Virginia, run by Jeannie Harrington, was one Betit said they looked into when developing their own project.
“We went down there to visit. That just really catapulted us to start moving forward,” Betit said “What her model was is where we would like to take some things eventually.”
The limited research on horticultural therapy looks promising. Most of the research has come from decades of the practice in Europe.
A 2011 study published in the Scandinavian Journal of Public Health showed evidence that gardening helped participants in Sweden manage “diverse diagnoses, spanning from obesity to schizophrenia.”
A 2014 study published in the journal for Neurodegenerative Disease Management followed up at sites across Scandinavia. And the results suggest that gardening could help participants manage behavioral health issues that often accompany substance use disorders, such as anxiety and depression.
Janalee Stock, a former nurse and a member of the Women For Recovery board that operates Serenity Grove, said the group is excited for residents to add another program to the center’s holistic approach to recovery.
“We’re not just physical beings,” she said. “We’re mental, emotional, spiritual, social. Doing something like the gardening addresses other aspects of recovery and taking care of yourself.”
And she feels the community’s support for the project will go a long way toward success for both the garden and the residents.
“Another aspect of what is challenging for someone that has been addicted is the stigma,” Stock said. “By having that community support, there’s that underlying message that ‘We care about you. You’re important. You don’t have to hide. You’re part of our community.’”
Volunteers helped build the raised beds, local companies donated supplies to help create the garden area and financial support continues to come in.
The Chrysalis Garden has a five-part plan for expansion of the project, with the residents one day taking over the day-to-day responsibilities.
A few of the additions Jensen and Betit have in mind include construction of a meditation area, a wider variety of produce and a program that gets the residents business experience by selling the produce to local businesses and restaurants.
But for now, Jensen is just ready to see what the residents grow.
“It’s what we produce with a purpose,” she said. “It’s produce because it’s vegetables but you’re producing something that has a purpose.”