Steppingstones to healing

“Gardening is one of the mystery pieces of healing,” says Safi Mahaba, program director for Reynolds Cottage at Eliada Homes. Earlier this year, she approached Eliada’s president, Mark Upright, with a proposal aimed at capitalizing on the therapeutic properties of things like a butterfly garden, a fence covered in wisteria and grapevines, a hummingbird garden, a large grassy area for picnicking and swings, and a vegetable garden.

In its earlier days, Eliada was a working farm that provided food and dairy for the children living there while giving them an opportunity to work and learn farming skills, and Mahaba also wanted to reconnect with the facility’s agricultural roots. With the green light from Upright, her idea became the catalyst for a test garden in the back yard of Reynolds Cottage on Eliada’s campus in Leicester.

In professional parlance, the cottage is a “psychiatric residential treatment facility.” That may sound institutional, but to nine young ladies ages 14 to 17, it’s “home.” Reynolds Cottage provides a respite from the world, Mahaba explains. It’s a place that allows the hurts and wounds of broken hearts and spirits to mend while giving girls the life skills they need to be able to live with their families and in their communities. Mahaba believes the garden project is one way to help them on their journey toward wholeness and connection.

As every gardener knows, a garden is a promise of tomorrow. Planting gardens is the equivalent of planting hope.

But the cottage’s back yard would send most of us looking for the greener side of the fence: It’s a 1,600-square-foot area surrounded by a 10-foot-high wooden fence. It was once a driveway, and these young gardeners had to contend with packed dirt and gravel before planting a single shrub. But tough conditions didn’t deter the girls, who’ve worked hard to make their garden a reality, Mahaba reports.

To get the project off the ground, she recruited Catherine Shane of Lush Life Landscapes, who volunteered to help the girls design, lay out and create a garden in stages.

Phase one involved creating better dirt, because healthy soil and healthy plants go hand in hand. In late July, Eliada’s Carolyn Ashworth issued a press release and a call for donations. “After I sent it out, it literally grew legs,” she says. “I work with philanthropists and people who give all the time, [but] I have never seen such generosity as exists among the gardening community.”

To date, she reports, the donations include: tools and sprinklers; a picnic table and swings; many, many plants; bags and bags of peat moss, mushroom compost and cow manure; and $1,500 dollars in cash ($1,000 of it coming from a single donor).

With that kind of help, the Eliada teens got to work on Aug. 8. Staff and community volunteers pitched in. The girls spread the soil amendments, and volunteers tackled the heavier work of tilling. The old driveway took on a new look.

Helping hands

If you’d like to contribute to the garden at Reynolds Cottage, here are some of the items still needed:
• lockable storage shed
• small digging tools
• bird feeders
• birdhouses (and, of course, bird food)
• Locust timbers for a strawberry pyramid
• Steppingstones for the girls to design
• Annuals and vegetables for fall and spring planting
For more information, contact Carolyn Ashworth at 254-5356, ext. 113 (e-mail:

Phase two is every gardener’s favorite part—planting. The teens put in a few fall crops, as well as some shrubs, two trees, wisteria and grapevines. Shane will continue to help the girls maintain and work the garden, and she’ll teach a gardening class as part of their school curriculum.

Phase three is the hardscaping (pathways, fence lines—anything that isn’t a plant but still contributes to the garden’s overall ambiance). Currently, a winding path flows through the middle of the garden, and each girl will contribute a steppingstone to it. She’ll make it herself, using a mold and colorful glass marbles to spell her name or fashion a design. Then she’ll place her stone in the pathway. The aim is to give a history of the girls who worked the Reynolds Cottage garden. The steppingstones will constitute a very visible memorial to their personal healing journeys, Mahaba notes.

To celebrate their new garden and show off their summer drama project, the girls performed “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” there before an audience of 50-plus people on Aug. 20. Even this early in the project, the garden’s healing benefits are spreading into the community while enabling nine young girls to bloom.

Mahaba believes gardening is an essential ingredient of that mysterious, organic process called healing. It’s also a very practical way to supply food; turn an otherwise not-so-attractive area into a an appealing and functional communal space; teach stewardship of our natural resources; and perhaps give a young girl a lifelong passion for gardening.

Sounds like a lot, but that’s exactly what happens when someone starts gardening.

[Cinthia Milner lives in Leicester.]

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