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‘Suburban farm’ provides important lessons to young patients

By Allyson Bird
Office of Development and Alumni Affairs

A group of teenagers looked skeptically at the leafy green plant in a bucket of water and then the tiny, nearly microscopic seeds in Tom Robinson’s hands.

“That’s chard?” one boy asked, pointing at the seeds. He glanced at the plant. “And that’s what it’s going to look like?”

Robinson, business development manager for MUSC’s Institute of Psychiatry, nodded. “That’s chard.” 

He brought the plant over from the MUSC Urban Farm for this first class at the new garden, dubbed the “Suburban Farm,” set up near the Air Force base in North Charleston. Three beds line the backyard, where young patients from the Institute of Psychiatry’s day treatment program can plant seeds and then harvest the crops that follow.

The farm opened this summer, thanks to grateful patients and their families who made gifts to MUSC through the Giving Back Grant Program. The program funds employee projects, including the $1,600 needed to build three plant beds and purchase a tool shed for the garden.

“The farm is more than a recreational break in the day,” Robinson said. “The kids learn the connection between nutrition and good health, as you would expect. But they also form a positive connection to the world around them, one that demonstrates creativity, teamwork and personal success.”

The Journal of Health Psychology published a study in 2011 which found that gardening provides stress relief. Plus, as clinical counselor Shawn Wilson explained, the farm delivers plenty of science lessons.

“Gardening is very important, because when you learn how to garden, you learn all sorts of things,” he told the group. “You learn about the weather. You learn about insects. You learn about animals. You learn how plants interact. Most importantly, you learn how to feed yourselves. Not everybody gets an opportunity to have their own garden, so I want you to take advantage of it.”

Patients in the day-treatment program get to smell and touch plants they never have seen. They watched fat tomato hornworms destroying a crop and then traded war stories back inside about whether the green caterpillars bit them in the garden. 

Robinson started his lecture by asking the kids about their favorite vegetables. He showed them eggplant, tomatoes, peppers, crow neck squash, herbs and beans growing in the plant beds. He explained how drip irrigation works, using hoses to soak the soil without spraying the tomatoes’ leaves.

Despite the 95-degree heat, the kids were captivated.  

One boy wanted to know about growing plants in water. A girl wondered why a tomato has fuzzy leaves. Another boy asked if the group could plant string beans.

One girl hung back. “You afraid of bugs?” a boy asked her. She nodded, and he stepped back with her.

Robinson split the kids into groups. He showed the first group how to plant chard, one tiny seed at a time. He set up the second group at the back of the same bed and gave them sunflower seeds to plant in the soil in groups of three.

Sown with new life, the beds looked the same as before the kids arrived. “The hard part about being a farmer,” Robinson explained, “is waiting.”   

When they finished planting, he gave each of the kids something to enjoy in the meantime: a handful of fresh chard and instructions on how to cook and enjoy the crop that they learned how to grow.