Western State Hospital staff, patients bid farewell to the greenhouse — for now

Nancy Herber, supervisor of the vocational rehabilitation therapy program at Western State Hosptial, left, and Karen Dimmitt, an institutional counselor who also serves as the greenhouse’s leader, stand under a giant foxtail agave plant.

DSHS Office of Communications

Tyler Hemstreet, Media Relations Manager

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LAKEWOOD — While there is a palpable feeling of sadness in the air amongst the rows of empty plant tables arranged in the greenhouse on the campus of Western State Hospital, staff and patients there are choosing to view the closure of the building through a different lens — one of rebirth and renewal.

“Everybody who comes in here says this (situation) is so sad,” said Nancy Herber, supervisor of the vocational rehabilitation therapy program at Western.

The greenhouse must be vacated by April 28, as construction crews start to prepare for hazardous materials abatement at the site, which starts this summer. The physical demolition of the building in preparation for the construction of the new hospital will start in September.

The location of the existing greenhouse will become a staff entrance for the new forensic hospital.

Staff and patients in the greenhouse have spent these final weeks selling off more than 1,000 plants of more than 55 different species.

“We’re looking at (the closure) as a way of building up (the program) again,” said Karen Dimmitt, an institutional counselor who also serves as the greenhouse’s leader.

There are plans to keep the horticultural program at the hospital operational during the years-long construction of the new hospital, just not in its current form, Herber said. Both the civil and forensic centers are currently looking at locations onsite to continue the programs for patients.

The horticultural program at the hospital has been in operation in some form for about 150 years. The current site of the greenhouse is where it has been for about the last 20 years, after being moved from the other side of the campus.

Four giant foxtail agave plants — a form of succulent native to central Mexico — in the greenhouse are what Herber calls “legacy plants,” which started small in the previous location on campus.

“They are about 40 to 50 years old,” she said, and will not be able to stay at Western during the transitional period.

The giant succulents have proven more difficult to find new homes for given the size and weight of their planters. But that hasn’t deterred Herber from trying.

“We’re talking with a few private conservatories who may be able to take them,” she said. “We’d love to see them flourish at a new site.”

Plans for the new hospital include a 500-square-foot greenhouse space that will be in the “downtown” area of the building, said Tyler Sloan, DSHS capital project manager.

“The downtown area is a common area on the first floor that provides patients with a sense of community,” Sloan said. “Although this new greenhouse space is much smaller than what currently exists, there will be new greenhouse spaces constructed for civil patients in or near the quad fence, as well as a new greenhouse space at the Gage Center for existing forensic patients.”

Other areas in the downtown area will include a gym, multipurpose chapel, open café/dining area, therapy/treatment areas, fitness center, and a variety of social/group rooms.

The horticultural program currently plays an integral role in more than 30 patients’ progressions in their individual treatment plans, Herber said.

Patients plant, propagate, prune, fertilize, apply insect control, and groom plants as part of the program.

“It helps get them outside their own head,” Dimmitt said.

Some patients work more than 10 hours a week at the greenhouse and are paid the hourly minimum wage. Many patients also hone their customer service skills when it comes to helping people choose plants to purchase. They are thankful the program exists.

A sign patients helped create hangs in the greenhouse at Western State Hospital.

“The plants help us out even though we are helping them out,” one patient said. “It’s really therapeutic.”

Another patient called the greenhouse “a safe zone where I can utilize my skills and talents, which in turn helps me build confidence in myself again.”

And for someone who knew nothing about plants when he came to the hospital in 2020, one patient said he can now see himself working in a retail capacity with plants when he is discharged to the community.

“It gives me a great feeling of self-worth,” another patient proudly declared. “(And) … that things (in my life) aren’t over yet — I can go on accomplishing things.”