By Tracey Richardson, Sun Times, Owen Sound

Wednesday, July 10, 2013 4:35:13 EDT PM

OWEN SOUND – The Canadian Mental Health Association wants to share its bounty.

Vegetable gardens for its Union Place drop-in centre brunch program in Owen Sound have been prolific since their inception four or five years ago, and now members of the community can take over an additional garden bed for their own use.

This year, three members of the community have asked for and been given a bed to grow and tend their own vegetables at the St. George’s tennis courts alongside the Union Place gardens. The beds are enclosed in a wood structure and are about a metre wide and two metres in length. Lettuce, kale, tomatoes, beans, pumpkins, peas, strawberries, eggplant and rhubarb spill out from the containers.

Site coordinator Teresa Pearson said she and CMHA executive director Claude Anderson batted around the idea months ago about letting people from the general community take on some beds for their own use.

“One of the things we’ve talked about is that larger concept of a community garden, and how it becomes people from all walks of life, whether it’s seniors who have farmed or gardened their whole life and who are now in an apartment building and don’t have a garden plot, but would love to, or whether it’s people who would like to garden on our team but we’re full. What about giving them a garden bed?”

The CMHA hires 10 people to work a few hours a week in gardens located at St. George’s, United Way, and in the snack gardens along the east harbour wall. The produce goes to the drop-in centre’s brunch program, which is run every morning from Monday to Friday. Nothing is wasted. There are three freezers, and extra produce gets made into salsa and sauces, or kitchen and garden workers take home anything that’s left.

But there’s room to grow, Pearson says. There are 63 beds at St. George’s, 19 at United Way and four along the harbour. Community members who sign on for a garden bed at St. George’s can use the tools, water, and even expertise the CMHA brings in on a regular basis from the Master Gardeners of Grey County, who donate some of their time.

Union Place began its brunch program a few years ago, and it’s become a popular gathering place for people in need of help and a nutritious meal.

“If they have a serious mental health illness, often times they’ll go on to become members, but they needed to first come and check out the space and see what it’s all about, and get their life settled,” Pearson said. “Some people come every day because they love the social contact. It’s very nutritious meals that are provided. They love the meals, they love the contact, they’ll sit and read the paper and then be on their way for the day.”

If they want help, they can get referrals from Pearson, but it’s up to them.

“I think if you offer a program to the community, the people that need it and want to come will come, and I think it’s really important that there’s no stigmatization. Everyone is welcome.”

Help also comes in the form of employment, both in the gardens and the kitchen.

For some of them, Pearson said it’s the first job they’ve had in years. It gives them employable skills and encourages them “to remember what is great about them.”

Tending the gardens allows them also to see the full circle of food production, from planting to consuming, Pearson said.

Randy Sillars tends a garden bed for the program, after being referred by his addictions counsellor. He said he’s always enjoyed gardening, and his garden container bears proof of this. Only positive things come from gardening, he said. “It’s therapeutic, it’s not hurting anyone and the end result is great because other people benefit.”

He also likes being busy, he said, and “it gives me a purpose.”

Pearson said she has no idea how popular the community garden concept might become.

“I would love to eventually see that really grow into literally people from all walks of life, all ages, gardening together, sharing their stories, being a support to each other.”

The snack gardens along the harbour walkway are for anyone to scoop vegetables from. There are tomatoes in them, carrots, radishes as big around as golf balls, snow peas and beans. Signs will soon go up alerting people to the fact that they’re community snack gardens, and will also tell people to call Pearson if they’d like to tend their own garden.

The garden program receives help from the United Way, Community Foundation Grey Bruce, the city and workers from Union Gas and Barry’s Construction have built many of the wood containers. Seeds and other supplies are donated or provided at cost by Annan-Way Nursery.

Pearson can be contacted at 519-371-3642, ext 184.

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