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By Elizabeth Jane Walker; Photos by Jere Parobek

 
 

The St. Jude Garden of Eatin'

The St. Jude Garden provides nutrient-packed food for patients and a delicious respite for volunteers and visitors.
 

It’s not the tender green lettuce, the long pink radishes or even the purple tomatoes that capture the interest of 5-year-old Olivia Fontaine during her tour of the vegetable garden at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. As the little girl from Canada peers over the edge of a metal bin, she stares in horrified fascination at shiny red worms wriggling in the rich, black compost.

“Les vers,” she whispers, squinching her delicate nose in distaste.

Olivia and her father have come to the garden as an afternoon diversion while Olivia’s brother, Caleb, recovers from a bone marrow transplant for acute myeloid leukemia. On this humid but windy afternoon, Olivia and her dad join other patient families in exploring the wonders of the St. Jude Garden.

Mary Carnes and Kevin Krueger

Carnes confers with Kevin Krueger, St. Jude procurement and sustainability manager.

Berries, bushes and beehives

St. Jude was one of the first hospitals in the United States to create a garden dedicated to growing vegetables and herbs for consumption by patients, families, staff and visitors.

Originally, hospital employees transformed a vacant lot across from the main campus into a small vegetable plot.

Today, that space contains meandering footpaths, an orchard and 74 verdant beds bursting with color and fragrance. Heirloom tomatoes, spiky asparagus fronds, tomatillos and purple hull peas sway in the breeze, which swirls with the aromas of rosemary, mint, lavender and the pungent scent of garlic.

A tomato on the vine in the St. Jude garden.

Most of the vegetables growing in the garden are destined for the hospital’s cafeteria, Kay Kafe. Kevin Krueger, procurement and sustainability manager for St. Jude Food Services, estimates that volunteers will harvest more than 3,000 pounds of produce from the garden this year and about 5,000 pounds next year. That bounty will be supplemented by figs and cherries produced by mature trees tucked away in another corner of the campus. New landscaping near the hospital’s data center will feature functional plantings such as berry bushes and fruit trees. And beehives will be added to the garden later this year, offering the sweet promise of rich, golden honey.

“Fresh produce is the most nutrient-dense form you can get,” Krueger explains. “Growing vegetables in our garden encourages our chefs to incorporate seasonal items into their menus. If they know we’re going to have a couple hundred pounds of a really nice varietal or an interesting type of produce coming out of the garden, they can write a menu for it. We can then roll it out in Kay Kafe.”

Garden infographic

Lettuce work together

In the past year, St. Jude has partnered with Memphis Tilth, a nonprofit organization that helps manage the garden and serve as a source of local food. Memphis Tilth also helps coordinate the St. Jude Farmers Market, a weekly on-campus resource for employees and patient families.

Krueger and the team from Memphis Tilth focus on making the garden an exciting and attractive space for use by patients, families, staff and visitors. New paths have been constructed, shade trees have been planted and plans are in place to provide shade structures, picnic tables and additional landscaping on the garden’s periphery.

Recently, hundreds of St. Jude employees streamed into the garden one Friday afternoon to enjoy tours, live music and camaraderie. Another event later that month catered specifically to patient families.

All of those activities require willing workers. The hospital relies on volunteers to plant, maintain and harvest the garden’s produce.

“When it’s 100 degrees in the middle of summer, it probably takes about 40 hours a week just to keep the garden watered,” Krueger says. “Then we need help with regular maintenance—weeding, helping with seed starts and other tasks that free up our garden team to conduct educational activities and plan new projects.”

About 50 hospital employees recently signed up to volunteer in the garden after work and on their lunch breaks. Individuals in the community participate through the hospital’s Volunteer Services Department. And university and corporate groups often provide sweat equity through organized work days.

All that romaines

As little Olivia now knows, there’s more to growing veggies than just planting, watering and waiting. Sometimes you need the assistance of a hard-working worm.

“We can take material from this bin and add it to the soil, which helps the plants grow,” Mary Carnes of Memphis Tilth explains to Olivia.

Even though Olivia’s dad translates Carnes’ explanation into French, the little girl is not convinced. But regardless of whether she fully understands the worms’ purpose, Olivia will certainly remember her visit to the St. Jude Garden.

“We want our garden to be more than a place that simply provides food for the hospital’s kitchen,” Krueger says. “Healing gardens are becoming more popular in hospitals throughout the country. We want ours to be both—a functional garden as well as an energizing and restorative space.”

To volunteer in the St. Jude Garden, visit stjude.org/vol-garden.

From Promise, Summer 2017

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