Greenhouse work provides therapy for Western State patients

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The outside of the Western State Hospital greenhouse, where patients in the Recreational Therapy Program tend to the plants.

The act of tending to a plant is more than simply watering and weeding. For some Western State Hospital patients, the work is therapeutic.

This aspect of the hospital’s Vocational Rehabilitation Program puts patients in the campus greenhouse to grow and care for more than 1,000 plants of all sizes, shapes and species.

“I love this because you get to see a lot of the fruit and the value of the patients’ work,” Recreation and Athletics Specialist Alvin Johnson said. “We try to incorporate life concepts into this process. As with anything in life, you’ve got to try to take care of it, you’ve got to manage it, you’ve got to do things to make it be fruitful. And so it lines up with a lot of their recovery concepts.”

With a temperature that stays about 70 degrees, the greenhouse is home to myriad plants, including just-sprouted tulips, full-grown trees, cacti, poinsettias, orchids, bromeliads, agave and a wide variety of ferns.

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Banana and rubber trees are available for sale at the greenhouse.

One of the most unique plants is the walking iris, which has light fragrant flowers that bloom intermittently for only 24 hours.

And that’s just the inventory inside. Patients and staff are prepping the outdoor urban garden for spring planting, when they will grow pumpkins, tomatoes, squash, strawberries and more.

Patients grow and care for all of the plants, tasks that teach work ethic, the importance of punctuality, dressing and acting appropriately, maintaining boundaries and following rules and safety guidelines, said Institutional Counselor Troy Cager.

“Just from vocational training in general for me I see tangible results, positive results, fast results, sustaining results with the patients and their mental health,” he said. “Working with the plants is a coping mechanism that helps distract from any type of negative psychosis that they may have.”

Three times a year the plants are available for sale. The greenhouse team recently completed its two-week Valentine’s Day sale, and in May will offer up plants for Mother’s Day. They also hold a holiday in December.

During the most recent holiday sale, about $3,000 worth of plants were sold despite customers being limited to reservation-only visits due to COVID-19 restrictions. That money goes back into the greenhouse to buy seeds, fertilizer and other supplies.

In addition to Johnson and Cager, the greenhouse program is staffed by Kjersten Klinginsmith, Dung “Dom” Le, Kimberly Wilson, DeCarlo Ward and Roy White. The group has bigger aspirations for the greenhouse program, as well: They hope to get approval to sell their plants and produce at farmers markets.

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