Outside, the weather is cold and unsettled. Inside, however, the air is hot, humid, and saturated with the smell of nature. Rows of soft and vibrant greenery sway merrily under our eyes. It is a magical place that is both calming and energizing. Welcome to the Douglas Greenhouse.
For the 25th anniversary of the Greenhouse, we met with Marielle Contant and Jacques St-Hilaire, who have worked as horticulturists at the Douglas for 19 and 12 years respectively.
Q: Tell us about the Greenhouse.
MC: The first greenhouse was constructed in 1924, and the second was added in 1961. At the time, and until 1984, the greenhouse and the grounds were part of a single department. A number of patients worked there, particularly on flower production. In 1984, the Douglas administration saw an extraordinary opportunity to use horticulture as a medium for rehabilitation.
Q: Is this what is called "horticultural therapy"?
JSH: Yes. The great variety of horticultural activities in our program lets us work on the physical, social, intellectual and emotional side of patients. At the Douglas, horticultural therapy is currently overseen by SPECTRUM (Psychosocial, Rehabilitation, and Community Support Services). One of the roles of SPECTRUM is to support patient recovery by helping them live a normal life in the community and play a significant role that is guided by personal choices.
MC: An interesting aspect of horticultural therapy is that it follows the rhythm of the seasons and the transformation of life over time, for example, with the planting of seedlings, the budding of lilacs, flower picking, etc. Horticultural activities pique our curiosity and sense of observation while activating all of our senses (smell, taste, touch, etc.).
Q: Who makes up your clientele?
MC: We have close to thirty users with severe and persistent psychiatric problems. They come to the Greenhouse once or several times a week. Users are first referred by their treating team to the SPECTRUM triage team and then to us. We give them tasks according to their mental and physical abilities. These tasks include planting seedlings, transferring seedlings into pots, repotting plants, watering, gardening outside, preparing sales, etc. We also receive groups from the care units of the Child Psychiatry and Eating Disorders Programs as well as from the Phoenix Learning Centre, which provides therapeutic daytime activities for people with psychiatric problems combined with intellectual disabilities. Users come to the Greenhouse to have fun, relax, and learn about horticulture…
JSH: …and cooking! We have a big vegetable garden in the back, and we sometimes make dishes like soups and pesto. We also organize workshops on how to use fine herbs, medicinal plants, local plants and edible flowers. Users from the Geriatric Psychiatry Program also come to visit; they sit around a table and enjoy freshly picked tomatoes and cucumbers.
Q: Have any of your former users kept up with their horticultural practice?
JSH: Yes, and we are very happy about that. Of course, SPECTRUM refers people to the Greenhouse workshop because they already have an interest in horticulture. One of our former users, who used to attend our regular program and then participated in the "Interagir" pre-employment initiative, has been doing grounds maintenance for a landscaper for five years now. Four other women from our program have also made for nice success stories: the first one finished a course in floriculture; the second works for a company that takes care of plants in offices; the third took a correspondence course in horticulture and just started working as a gardening assistant; and the fourth is a city employee who does park maintenance work. The perseverance, progress and success of our former users are a source of inspiration
and motivation for patients. Their success becomes "contagious". For us, it is very rewarding to be part of the formula for patient recovery.
Q: How do you see the Greenhouse in 25 years?
JSH: Me? I'll be retired! Joking aside, we'll be called upon to work even more closely with community organizations to help users go from the 2nd line to the 1st line.
MC: We are privileged to have greenhouses on the grounds. The number of greenhouses on the Island of Montreal can be counted on one hand: the Botanical Garden, in the city of Westmount…and ours at the Douglas! We hope that the Greenhouse will still be here in 25 years. The environment is unique, with its light and sense of tranquility and peace. The benefits of horticultural therapy have been acknowledged for over 100 years. The dynamic between individuals is also touching. People help, encourage and respect each other. Discrimination and taboos do not exist here. The absence of judgement makes people to feel at ease.
Q: There is a huge tree at the back of the Greenhouse that almost touches the roof. What kind of tree is it?
JSH: It's a banana tree – which is actually a herbaceous plant – that's over fifty years old. Every year, it produces close to one hundred bananas. The environment is very suitable for our banana tree. Our current polycarbonate greenhouses, which were put together in 2004 by maintenance employees, are much hotter and more humid than the previous greenhouses made of glass. The old greenhouses cost a fortune to heat. The savings in heating costs mean that the current greenhouses were paid for in only five years. This was a great gesture for the environment as well as a local purchase (we bought it from the Harnois company in Joliette).
A grey cat discreetly sidles up behind us…
JSH: That's Grésille. She lives here with Théo, another cat. They work hard to keep the field mice at bay. Without our two cats, the Greenhouse would be empty!
Q: Aside from you and the cats, does anyone else work at the Greenhouses?
MC: We have a volunteer named Jessica who works one afternoon and one morning a week. Trainees come here from different horticulture schools, including the Botanical Garden. We also work with a former trainee named Fanny Debonnet, who performs maintenance on the Douglas grounds from May to October.
Q: Do you have anything else to add?
MC: Jacques and I like to think that we are helping—in our modest but determined way— to create a positive image of both mental illness and those affected by them.