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Patients are getting their hands dirty in the greenhouse and garden, with beautiful—and delicious—results

Austen Riggs Center Greenhouse Instructor Sandy Dawson talks about the role of gardening and the greenhouse as part of the Activities Program at Riggs. Those beautiful flowers on the tables, the well-tended plants in the Inn, the delicious vegetables prepared in the kitchen—Austen Riggs has its own “garden-to-table” initiative, courtesy of patients who tend plants in our greenhouse and garden as students of Greenhouse Instructor Sandy Dawson.

“The work done at the greenhouse shows up all around,” says Dawson with pride. “When people compliment me, I make sure I tell them which patients did what, so that they can compliment them.” 

Many of her students had no prior experience with gardening, protesting that they’ve always killed their plants. But she assures them that “I kill plants too! It happens.” With her encouragement, they soon learn to plant and propagate, weed and water.

Each planting cycle brings some new students to the greenhouse, thanks to positive word of mouth. Patients learn about the opportunity in their first week at Riggs when they meet with the Activities Department at lunch.

Gardening is one of several options available in the center’s unique Activities Program, where patients become students working with artisans and teachers in painting, ceramics, fiber arts, woodworking, theater arts, gardening, or assisting in the nursery school. This engagement gives them time and space to relax, learn new skills, and tap into their creativity in meaningful ways. 

Dawson has nurtured a lifelong passion for growing things. She grew up on a farm and recalls that “I used to get off the school bus and eat a tomato like an apple. I didn’t need cookies—I had tomatoes!” She taught agricultural science to high school students for 30 years before retiring and moving to this area to tend her father’s farm. Then the Riggs job opened up.  

Austen Riggs Center Greenhouse Instructor Sandy Dawson talks about the role of gardening and the greenhouse as part of the Activities Program at Riggs.

 “It fell right into what I’ve been doing my whole life,” says Dawson. She arrived on campus and dug in—“I turned somebody loose with a rototiller”—expanding what was then a small flower garden and starting to incorporate vegetables.

A decade later the summer garden is well established, becoming more organic, and relying more and more on student efforts. Each year they help Dawson plan what to plant the following season, and she finds they are eager to share ideas “whether or not they are going to be here.” There are standards like tomatoes and peppers, but if students have different ideas, she is open: “It’s really a student garden; we grow what they want.”

Dawson relies on more and more students as the growing cycle moves from starting seeds and propagating plants in the greenhouse—which only needs a few hands—to transplanting outdoors, which is a big undertaking. 

And when their efforts come to fruition, students take great pride in bringing their beets or beans or broccoli over to the kitchen, which puts out signs noting the produce came from the garden. 

With last year’s harvest done, plans for this year’s garden made, and spring right around the corner, work has returned to the greenhouse. “All of a sudden you’re back into spring, and off you go,” says Dawson.

New students will assure her they always kill plants, and she will show them the beauty of digging in soil and nurturing new plant life. The cycle will begin anew. Before long flowers will bloom and brighten the hallways. Vegetables and herbs will make their way from garden to table—and everyone will dig in.

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Greenhouse Instructor Sandy Dawson recently announced her retirement from Riggs beginning June 1, 2019. You can find a posting for the Greenhouse Instructor position on our careers page. 

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