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Greco Gardens: Something for Everyone

by Linda Buchalo

In 1993, Elizabeth Messer started a horticulture program at Holbrook Center. A year later, Misericordia began construction on an actual greenhouse. The Greco Gardens greenhouse and surrounding gardens opened in 1995 and were dedicated to Pauline Greco in honor of her family's long-standing support.  

Located on the southwest side of Conway, Greco Gardens includes the greenhouse, an office, utility rooms, and restrooms.  The greenhouse itself has a heated floor, polycarbonate roof, and a special weather system that can be set to electronically control the climate within the greenhouse. The system opens vents in the ceilings and walls and has a cooling wall that is drawn through the greenhouse by huge fans on the roof.  A third of the greenhouse is dedicated to hydroponics, a third to special botanical tables for plants and projects, and a third to worktables for the residents.

Greco Gardens offers educational therapy and job opportunities in an environment of beautiful and exotic plants. The program is overseen by Sharon Metzger, who first became involved with Misericordia in a joint summer art program with Senn High School. She fell in love with the residents and was very impressed with the Community Day Services (CDS) program. When the position at Greco Gardens became available, it allowed Sharon to combine her teaching, art, interior design, and master gardening experience to develop new programs.

Under Sharon’s direction, the program has blossomed, literally and figuratively. The focus has evolved from growing and potting plants to a unique farm-to-table program that includes hydroponic gardening.  Most recently, Greco Gardens has expanded beyond its original boundaries to include gardens that residents and visitors can enjoy all over the Misericordia campus and at off-campus buildings.

The program serves about 60 individuals consistently every week, but other groups are often invited to come share the experience. Branch project work has increased the usage of the gardens.

The residents work mostly outdoors when the weather allows, starting in March and ending at some point in October. During the cooler months, they concentrate on hydroponics, caring and growing the indoor plants, working on seasonal plantings and gifts for Market Days and the gift store, doing recycle-reuse projects, and attending phenology (study of seasons) lessons.

Sharon has a real talent for accommodating the different needs and interests of the residents. She focuses on sustainable start-to-finish projects, which allow residents to participate in every stage of the project and to reflect on the success of the final product. This type of project allows different people to concentrate on the parts of the project that they are comfortable with while getting the experience of working as a team with peers on the whole project. Everyone owns the project, and no one is left out.

An example of a start-to-finish project is designing a pot of the month to sell at the gift stores and Market Days. The residents have voice and choice of the pot design, help to paint the pots, and make paper care instruction tags from recycled shred and flower blossoms. They grow, care for, and pot up the plant of the month, price the items, and take the planted pots to the gift store. The residents maintain the planted pots as they are on sale, sell the extras at Market Days, and then follow the inventory, cost, and profit to get a final picture of their project. The profit goes back into CDS program supplies, which makes the residents feel great---they are contributing to the projects in every way! Sharon shared her strategy: “I always try to make sure the residents see the final product before it goes to the gift stores, or wherever, so that they feel proud of the final product. Work always has more meaning when you realize your success.”

Sharon uses a variety of acrostic poem work and other reflective lessons to help the residents process what they are accomplishing. The resident gardeners work on farm-to-table projects such as planting hydroponic seedlings, harvesting zip towers, or growing zucchini for the Hearts and Flour zucchini bread. Participants love to take the lettuce they harvest from the zip towers home to wash and then make salad for dinner. Harvesting food is a favorite activity at Greco Gardens. Participants also like to make seasonal nature crafts and then give them as gifts or sell them.

Sometimes, a simple task ends up growing into something greater. Sharon related a serendipitous occasion when McGowan residents grew dill last year in Holbrook Garden. They noticed that swallowtails ate the dill and then laid eggs on it. They brought the dill home and raised the swallowtails from egg, to caterpillar, to pupae, to butterflies, and then released them. The residents plan to repeat the activity again this year.

The benefits of the Greco Gardens program can be measured in many ways: sometimes it’s simply a sensory experience that brings joy to a resident, perhaps a greater acknowledgement of the great outdoors. The program furthers work skills, such as following directions, properly caring for things living and non-living, staying on task, and working with peers. And the action of growing food and then preparing it is always exciting. Some of the participants have been able to move into outside jobs or community volunteer positions.

Much of the progress in this program has been funded by the Amina Grace Foundation. Grants from the foundation have funded both the outside enabling and sensory gardens and the hydroponics program. Greco Gardens provides food production notes and a summary of the program work, which the foundation uses to promote sponsorship for the program.

Like many other activities, the work at Greco Gardens has been affected by the pandemic. They are currently not growing food in the zip towers but are using seed tables to start vegetables, herbs, and flowers that are shared across campus. Prior to COVID-19, the residents were growing various lettuces and basil throughout the year. The program had just introduced a paid work program for two residents every week. And there were plans to start growing lettuce for a special salad at the Greenhouse Inn.

Sharon and her “gardeners” are looking forward to the day when volunteers can return, and residents can visit with their families to showcase their accomplishments.

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