By Judy Farah
Tucked away in an alley in downtown San Luis Obispo is a tiny store with big appeal.
Growing Grounds Downtown, on the former site of a driveway between two buildings, is now filled with lush houseplants, succulents and drought-tolerant and native California plants. Colorful terra cotta planters line the shelves, along with bright packets of seeds, garden gloves, candles and handcrafted jewelry. Students from nearby Cal Poly San Luis Obispo stop by to pick up dorm decorations, while other customers browse for gift items.
What makes this store different is the staff assisting these shoppers: Most suffer from severe mental illness.
The workers, also called participants or clients, take part in a unique horticultural therapy program offered by Transitions-Mental Health Association of San Luis Obispo County. Workers engage in garden- or plant-based activities at the store and nearby nursery. TMHA has run both the store and the nursery for more than three decades for people with debilitating mental illness who want to re-enter the workforce.
Sheri Grayson is one of those people. Suffering from lifelong mental illness, she fought drug and alcohol addiction. Grayson hadn't held a job in 25 years and didn't think she could. She started out slowly, working at the nursery, where she replants seedlings, prunes and waters plants, then gets them ready for sale. She also works one day a week at the downtown store.
Gardening as therapy
"When I first got there, I was pretty broken. You know, I wasn't mentally right," Grayson said. "It took some time for me to get better and open up. I hadn't been around people. I hadn't worked, I hadn't done any of that. My social skills were really not that great at the time. Growing Grounds has helped me a lot. It's made me come a long way."
Christine Story has managed the Growing Grounds store for 15 years and has seen employees transform from being withdrawn and uncommunicative to interacting confidently with customers.
"Someone might walk in and think they don't have any skills or talent, but after a few shifts, they gain confidence and say, 'I can do this. I can work on a computer. I can take care of plants. I can talk to the customers,'" Story said.
The Growing Grounds program started in 1982 when Barbara Fischer, former TMHA executive director, founded a landscaping business and wanted to use the organization's mental health clients as workers, to help them acquire jobs skills. Employees started by growing tomatoes and lettuce. TMHA was next able to acquire a 7-acre plot that became a nursery that sells flowers, shrubs, herbs, trees and other plants.
The program currently has 65 workers, ranging in age from 18 to 70 years old, who work three-hour shifts a couple of days a week for minimum wage. Employees such as Grayson start each shift at the nursery by doing warm-up exercises, then gather in the barn around what they call the "enterprise" table, where they transplant seedlings of pansies, marigolds, petunias and other plants into 1-gallon containeIt's this time at the table, when employees are standing up and talking, that bonding and trust begins, said Frank Ricceri, TMHA vocational services director and head of the Growing Grounds program.
"A typical trajectory for someone is, they come in kind of anxious, always anxious, afraid, quiet. Three months to six months in, they're starting to open their eyes a bit more to what's going on here and feel comfortable," Ricceri said.
He came to the nursery in 1988 after answering an ad for a farmer. His background is in business, but he said he always wanted to work the land. He's been with the Growing Grounds program ever since, managing the nursery that takes in a half million dollars a year.
Breaking a stigma
"I got the job and I started and found that I was working with people who were exceptional, in the sense that I learned about different kinds of mental illness from them: bipolar disorders, schizophrenia, chronic depression, all kinds of things," Ricceri said. "They were my workforce here."
More than 80% of people with serious mental illness are unemployed, according to the National Alliance of Mental Health. Everyone who comes into the Growing Grounds program must have been diagnosed with a severe and persistent mental illness.
Besides helping people, Growing Grounds strives to break the stigma of mental illness. The program's downtown store boasts a large sign stating the store supports mental health awareness. Managers who work with the participants are trained in mental health.
"Our workforce supports one another and that is a common benefit to mental health, is people have a lot of compassion and empathy for one another. There's an unspoken camaraderie and support that happens among our workforce here," Ricceri said. "No one has done what we have done with our use of therapeutic horticulture as a basis for healing. Work itself is healing, but work outdoors with plants is incredibly healing."
Gaining confidence through horticulture
Story said employees tell her how much they enjoy coming to the store because of how calm and peaceful they feel among the plants.
"It's truly delightful to see. You can imagine a person coming in who is very hesitant, unsure of themselves and looking down at the ground. After a number of shifts, of meeting success and being encouraged and getting good feedback from customers and staff, they start looking more directly at people and speaking clearly and speaking more," she said.
Story said she's pleased to see the success and community support that comes out of the 15-foot-wide space.
"We're not just running a little plant store. We have a higher mission," Story said. "The staff and I all feel great satisfaction from the work we're doing and the opportunities we're providing for folks who need a little leg up."
Grayson, who's been at Growing Grounds for two years, is now a crew leader teaching others. She graduated from a new program at TMHA called Breaking Barriers, a 12-week course that helps participants transition to outside employment.
"I didn't realize that I was that good at what I was doing, but they said I'm really good at it. And I'm good with people and how I talked to the clients. It made my self-esteem really good," she said.
Grayson looks back on her life now and all she's been through. She said one of her sons encouraged her not to give up, so she decided to give Growing Grounds a chance for her children and grandchildren.
"Gardening is really, really fun. It's very therapeutic," she said. "I'm able to have things I'd never had before, just working here. I met a lot of good people. I have friends now. It's really good. It's really, really good. My family's proud of me."
This story first appeared in the May/June issue of California Bountiful.
An ancient practice
Working with plants promotes emotional, mental and physical health and well-being, according to the American Horticultural Therapy Association.
Horticultural therapy dates back to ancient times. During the Middle Ages, many hospitals and monasteries created beautiful gardens and courtyards for their patients. Dr. Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence recognized as the "Father of American Psychiatry," published findings in 1812 that said patients who worked in gardens had better recovery rates from mania than those who had not.
Horticultural therapy was expanded in the 1940s and '50s to include injured World War II veterans at Veterans Administration hospitals, where physicians used on-site gardens specifically for rehabilitation therapies. The professional field of horticultural therapy began in 1973. Today, therapeutic gardening is also used in recovery and senior centers, public and private schools and correctional facilities. Most recently, nurses and doctors have used therapeutic gardens at hospitals as respites during the COVID-19 crisis.