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Agritherapy plants the seeds of healing

There’s a new kind of healing happening at a Michigan hospital. The prescription includes seeds, soil, sun, and water.  

It’s a hot, humid day, but there’s a nice breeze blowing through a hoop house at St. Joseph Mercy Ann Arbor Hospital. That’s a greenhouse that can be used almost all year long.

It’s like walking into an oasis.

There’s a waterfall that flows into a small pond where a few koi live. 

The smell of rich, earthy compost fills the air. There are wooden planters that can be raised and lowered and another planter that turns like a Ferris wheel.

Everything here is designed to make gardening accessible, even from a wheelchair.  

It’s early summer, but there’s already an explosion of greenery.

“We have tomatoes on the top, so that it’ll be easier to harvest tomatoes as they kind of rain down. In the bottom beds we have some cantalope and squash, cabbage. We have some beets, broccoli, some peas,” says Jeremy Hodges, production coordinator for St. Joe’s Eisenhower Center, which treats people recovering from brain trauma.

St. Joe’s already had two hoop houses. Last fall, it added this one, designed for and by some of the Eisenhower Center’s 150 patients and St. Joe's rehabilitation patients.

It’s called agritherapy – a combination of physical and emotional therapy, as well as work experience.

Doctors say it serves as a stepping stone to help people become more independent and self-confident.

A stationary bike powers an irrigation system that uses recycled rainwater.

It’s being vigorously pedaled by Ernest Scott, a young man with long, curly dark hair and a beard. He was seriously injured in a car crash four years ago and was in a coma for two weeks.

“I work mostly at the garden at Eisenhower Center, but I’m at the hoop house today. It’s kind of an allegory for a lot of learning paying off in terms of my life, and my recovery in terms of putting in effort and being able to see results,” Scott says.

Karl Shelton is another Eisenhower Center client. He also suffered a traumatic brain injury in an auto accident about seven years ago. But his creativity and ingenuity are intact.

Shelton designed and wired some of the mechanical systems in the hoop house.  

“I’ve worked with cars and welding and fabricating pretty much my whole life, so I kind of knew what I was doing,” Shelton says. “I had to do a little research to figure out how to wire the switches because they were really complicated.”

The hoop house has a whimsical side, too. Like the hobbit house onto which peas and squash and flowers are trained. You can stand or sit inside if you’re looking for a little solitude.

There’s also a fairy garden filled with herbs and miniature houses – a big hit with children.

Some of the produce grown here is sold at the hospital’s farmers market.

And some of it is used in the hospital’s kitchen … which just hired four new chefs who specialize in cooking fresh food.

This new hoop house was the dream of Christine Myran, vice president of programs at the Eisenhower Center.  She says it’s the first of its kind in the nation.

“It’s not a clinic,” Myran says. “It’s something more natural. It’s very comfortable. It’s very relaxed.”

The hospital has restored 25 of its 364 acres to a natural state, or is using it for organic farming.

Dave Raymond is the Eisenhower Center’s director of planning and design.

He says that’s a big change from the way they used to do things.

“We cut a lot of grass. We put a lot of pesticides on. We want this image that corporate America seems to have brought upon us. It needs to change,” Raymond says.

Eisenhower Center President John Cornack says the new hoop house is where dreams begin for patients who’ve suffered catastrophic injuries. It’s for their families, too.  

“And they just love being here and feeding from the energy, and being able to give it back. It’s the most beautiful feeling.”

You’ll find the new hoop house by the big red barn on the southeast side of St. Joe’s campus.

The public is welcome to visit, because, as the staff says, everybody needs a little green healing now and then.