Gardening Resources of Wellness or GROW is a non-profit horticulturally focused
program created to “introduce the therapeutic benefits of gardening, plant activities and
nature to improve personal well-being”. GROW, initially made possible by the support from
the Centerpoint Program at Tewksbury Hospital and the Justice Resource Institute is a
free gardening resource for the campus members, program attendees, and staff of
Tewksbury Hospital. GROW is where everyone can find a place in the garden.
It is not lost on me, as I sit down to tell you about the GROW program and the rebirth of
the historic-landmark greenhouses we call home, that this story parallels my own
journey. I am overwhelmed by the support and collaborators breathing life into the
GROW program and our headquarters.
We have accomplished so much inside of our first year.
There is a breeze slipping through our vented roof. This evening it fills the room with the
scent of Sweet Alyssum which is blooming at the other end of our 150-year-old, 3000 sq
ft main greenhouse. Looking around I see Geraniums, Asters, Coleus, Zinnia’s, Celosia
– all the usual players, all started from seed, all growing row after row with a uniformity
that is seemingly engineered to impress. A modest collection of market-ready ferns and
high-end cactus arrangements fill a quarter of the space, and there is a lemon tree and
lime tree – just because - each producing fruit. I am a gardener with three greenhouses
to steward and I am, for the first time in my life, exactly where I am supposed to be.
I watched my great-uncles farm their land in the white mountains when I was a kid. Sun
up to sun down in their fields and then home to their vanity gardens. Big men on big
machines, working all day only to come home and get lost in the silent, calming minutia
of fussing over gladiola blossoms.
My garden, like theirs, lays simple nature’s obvious power and the way that power
holds over me; the pull of my garden is greater than the pain of my arthritis. The
significant work put into my garden is dwarfed by the reward it returns. I have worked
through many of life’s difficult decisions based on wisdom found while splitting an iris
patch. My garden can be the distraction I need for getting out of my own way. This is
gardening and it’s a resource of wellness.
Tonight, with the scent of Alyssum as my plus one, I want to tell you how GROW came
JUST KEEP DRIVING
I found them by accident, tucked away at the back of the Tewksbury Hospital campus in
Massachusetts where they had been ignored for decades. Four large greenhouses with
original stonework, interconnected by a house, on a chunk of state land with a
reputation for being haunted.
None of the greenhouses had full roofs - What was left of one roof had been flapping in
the wind for 20 years. Parts of another roof were visible - high above - in the trees that
had grown up and through the greenhouse itself. The doors on all four houses had
rotted and either fallen off their hinges or been gnawed through by animals looking for
Allowed to fade away quietly and fall prey to the rude intrusions of age, there had been
no seedlings, just weeds for these greenhouses. No caregiver, just squatters. I would
later learn that since the late 90s the greenhouses had been nothing but the source of
“what a shame” and “someone should do something” comments from those passing by.
I thought the same thing as I pulled over and walked their grounds - someone should do
The greenhouses sit on top of a small hill surrounded by a yard, about an acre in total, on
some 800 acres of state property. There is a road that runs alongside the houses, used
primarily by hospital employees looking for a short cut home. At the base of the hill is an
enormous equestrian therapy center and all of this described is surrounded by fields of
corn in the summer. It feels like summer camp. It smells like summer camp.
I had always wanted to start a horticulturally therapeutic project. Something different
from a gardening club, I imagined a farm/greenhouse center where people could learn
about the benefits found in the garden and how they could weave what they learned into
their day-to-day lives. The mental health, trauma recovery and post-surgical benefits
associated with gardening are well documented and I had day-dreamed for years about
building that resource for people. That was not the business I started though.
I was very content with my small, high-end gardening service and traveling with my
husband whenever wherever. I had regular clients with beautiful properties and going to
work, designing for them every day was a dream.
Sure, as a gardener I had always wanted a greenhouse but not 5000 sq’ of a broken
greenhouse. I could imagine the seedlings growing and the flowers blooming en masse
in these houses, but I could also imagine where the roofs used to be and what those
would cost to replace. Besides, this is New England and the cost of heating
greenhouses would make any idea impossible.
I got back in my car and drove home musing about the possibilities of what I could do
with these greenhouses. Regardless, I decided to go one step further than my uninvited
meandering about the greenhouse grounds, and I asked for a tour of the inside. What
could it hurt?
The following week, that walkthrough concluded, I asked Roger Gauthier the B&G
Director as he showed me to the door - why these historic-landmarks were allowed to
fall apart and give in to the elements? He told me that people had tried to bring them
back to life but the consensus was that the greenhouses were too big of a project to fix
easily. No purpose. There was too much damage. Too much bad weather.
Roger closed the door behind us and sent me on my way home, like a good little
gardener, to forget having ever seen those greenhouses.
I drove home that night resigned, knowing I could not forget them nor the window of
possibilities they could offer.
I could see the whole GROW program in my head. It was obvious to me what the
purpose of the greenhouses was – to help people heal, to harbor new life, to introduce
or renew interest in nature. No matter what else there is trying to hold a person back,
there is nature to pull them forward.
It was obvious to me, the community that these greenhouses could foster, but how
would I develop the GROW project in buildings that aren’t really buildings anymore?
Other than my Goth niece and her Goth friends, no one wants to hang out in haunted,
leaking greenhouses overrun with whitefly and woodchucks. Who was going to do all
the heavy lifting on a project no one knew anything about before last Monday? Was
there even plumbing? Who was going to pay for this? This was not the business I
started. My husband was going to kill me.
At 56 years of age, it would appear life had brought me to a second and very profound
crossroads. The first crossroads in my life was personal in nature, this one professional
but both very intertwined.
I am an alcoholic. I came to that crossroads in October 1997. I had settled into the
alcoholic’s unforgiving terrain early in life because it left unsupervised the bohemia of
being an artist. It filled my days with confidence, spontaneity, and inspiration and my
nights with adventure and liberation. Over time though, the positive influences
dissipated and only confusion, disappointment and anger defined me. I grew resigned to
the consequences of daily blackouts, lies, and apologies rather than give up the plus
one that had chased everything else away. I was unable to provide, unable to perform
, and unable to support myself. My disease had flattened and compromised me.
Whatever purpose I had, whatever talent I had honed was gone. I could not get out of
my own way to ask for help. At 33 I was too big of a project to fix easily. Too much
damage, too much bad weather.
I got lucky. I had a brief moment of clarity when I saw the possibility of a life where I
didn’t drink and I jumped at that possibility. No thought, no warning - I just went with it. I
knew I was at a crossroads and I wasn’t likely to make it back there again. I decided
sixteen years was enough drinking for me and within seconds it could be over. Done. I
just had to decide it was over. I just had to say goodbye to everything I knew and start
over. So I did.
The wellness did not come easily as anyone who has confronted their addiction will tell
you. I was anxious and uncomfortable in my own skin for the first since I was a kid. I
was without my plus one for the first time in my adult life and I didn’t have a clue what to
do. It suddenly dawned on me exactly how alone I was.
The gory mechanics of those first few weeks is a story for another time. Suffice it to say
once the smoke cleared, the first thing I did was get lost in my garden. It was early
autumn so I knew I could count on just enough distraction and unconditional friendship
to get me through those shaky first few months before winter came. There were
professionals to help put my big pieces back together but the garden could be counted
on to provide the rest.
Mid-October 1997. All the flowers, dried and unrecognizable to anyone other than a
gardener, all reminded me of the summer I had once again missed. Yet they waited, the
tall coreopsis - disguised to most, for me to say good night to them. They had waited.
I was needed. I had a purpose that day. It was a start. I was exactly where I was
supposed to be.
GROW: Gardening Resources of Wellness.
I’m 56 and I’m staring down the barrel of crossroads #2; The Professional Edition.
Known vs the unknown. I can see the GROW project thriving in these greenhouses.
There could be no better confluence of need and idea but – again - who was going to do
all the heavy lifting? Who was going to pay for this? This was not the business I started.
It was during this internal debate, that the Director of the Centerpoint Program, Carolyn
Ingalls called me and introduced the possibility of the funding part of the greenhouse
reconstruction and on-going expenses while I developed GROW. She saw potential in
the greenhouses as a vocational opportunity for residents in her program. She could
also see beyond her own program and envision what this could provide for countless
others. Carolyn had arranged my tour of the greenhouses with Roger and was now
encouraging me to consider her generous offer. It was from this moment forward that
every step of this project fell into place with a smile. We were on the road of “yes”.
Carolyn, Roger, and I met with the CEO of Tewksbury Hospital and discussed the non-
profit GROW program, illustrating the obvious benefits it would bring to campus life. The
hospital was generously willing to provide tradespeople such as electricians and
plumbers but would not assume the financial burden of the reconstruction or staff
salaries. Finances aside though, we had their “yes” – we could access the state’s
buildings and give it our best shot.
GROW had a home. GROW had some funding, but there was still the matter of
a couple of missing roofs and a bunch of woodchucks calling the greenhouses home.
ENTER MR. BILL
Mr. Bill Orlando is a big personality, like a favorite uncle who beams with joy, loving
what he does. He has the thick fingers of a worker and loves to share photos of his
current projects. Million-dollar current projects. Bill was the last name on a very short list
of companies that service New England greenhouses. I had called all the others whom
each declined, politely explained how far out they were booked, and/or questioned my
sanity for resurrecting ancient greenhouses in New England. Bill’s name had come up
before, but I was warned that he is booked extensively and frequently out of state for
high-end clients. I called anyway, I was on a roll.
Bill himself called me back only minutes after I left a message on his service. I could
hear the reluctance in his voice from the start but he politely let me complete my pitch.
He was familiar with the greenhouses and their condition. Relics. Bill agreed to meet me
and have a look at the greenhouses but was clear that he had no time and less interest.
If nothing else I thought, I could get some direction from him. I had some funding, I had
the keys, I needed roofs.
We met the next day and I gave him my best dog and pony show. Bill was gracious as I
stammered through the greenhouse construction jargon I had crammed the night
before. He was indeed familiar with the greenhouses as he had previously quoted on a
rebuild that never came to fruition. He pointed out aspects of the greenhouses’ build
that only a craftsman would pick up on. We shared our appreciation for the structures
but it was clear our budget didn’t approach the quotes Bill was referencing from
previous visits - but he didn’t run away either so I just kept talking.
I told Bill about the GROW project and how it would call the greenhouses home. I
shared with him what I saw in my head and he patiently listened, periodically interjecting
as he does. After two hours of walking around, I sensed it was time for Bill to go so we
walked back toward his truck. We stood around and talked about what this project
Roger had pointed out that others had tried and failed to resurrect these houses. Too
big a project. I was standing in the same spot, likely with the same contractor they met
with and agreeing – too much damage. Sadly, it would appear the greenhouses would
need a different purpose.
“So Bill”, I asked, “If you were me, what would you do?”
Then I told him my not-too-exceed budget.
Carolyn and I had met the Justice Resource Institute (JRI); the largest human services
provider in the Commonwealth which funds Carolyn’s Centerpoint program on the
grounds at TH. They were generous enough to meet with us and consider my proposal
for the GROW project. It was agreed that a program like GROW had great potential but
signed off on the financial support, contingent that it is funded from Centerpoint’s
budget. Financial stipulations agreed upon, Carolyn and I sketched together a not-to-
exceed budget and we moved onto the next step having collected a “yes” from JRI.
“What would you do, Bill?”
“I’ll find you two weeks in October and we’ll reroof two of the four houses.” Then he
showed me pictures of a famous movie director’s greenhouse he built and left,
promising to touch base soon. We now had the most important “yes” to date.
When his team finished the second greenhouse weeks later, they notified me they
would reroof our third greenhouse (an atrium) for the cost of materials alone, and still
somehow within our budget.
I will never get tired of hearing people say (and I hear them say it all day long), “I’m so
glad someone finally did something with these greenhouses”. Me too.
This could never have happened without the endless encouragement and support of
Carolyn Ingalls, Centerpoint, and JRI, the generosity and craftsmanship of Mr. Bill
Orlando and his team and the precise navigation of Roger Gauthier. There are dozens
of other people that have added their talents and insight to get GROW to where we are
today and I look forward to meeting those we haven’t met yet.
THIS is what a dream come true looks like.