The nursing home in Onzain in the Loire River valley is lucky. Not only it is located a stone’s throw away from Chaumont-sur-Loire, the site of the International Festival of Gardens and one of the only places in France to offer a 3-day training in horticultural therapy since 2012, it also unwittingly hired a nurse with a mission. When Paule Lebay learned about enabling gardens, in the sense of Clare Cooper Marcus et Naomi Sachs, she became determined to create one in this rest home called La Treille in remembrance of the vineyards that was stood where the home was recently built. Her aim was to start with the day center where she welcomes people with Alzheimer’s and later to include residents.
To reach this goal, she followed a common path in healthcare settings in France. She created a non-profit association with a few coworkers who were also convinced of the benefits of gardens and gardening. The association enables them to raise funds and manage the project, a task that would be near impossible through the rest home official administration. The association called Graine de Jardins (Garden Seed) has been active since 2013. With the support of caregiver Gisèle Rousseau, medical-psychological assistant Martine Carlet and outside help from landscape architect Fabienne Peyron, a former lawn outside the day center has been turned into a thriving garden starting in the spring of 2014.
In August 2014, Paule Lebay gave me a tour. Here are some videos.
“This is the entrance to the garden. We recreated a forest floor because many people used to love to take walks in the forest. They can’t go anymore because of their wheelchairs or walkers. With mosses and ferns, we have tried to recreate a forest floor with all the smells. We are in an area that’s shady and wet with rainwater falling right here. We are hoping to recreate these sensations in this small space.”
“Two artists who teach about ephemeral installations at Chaumont-sur-Loire created this wall with welded rebar. We created these portholes to keep the perspective as you walk into the garden so that you can immediately see the planters and the garden. One porthole is lower for people in wheelchairs. Jasmine and clematis have been planted and we will add a rosebush. After they grow, the perspective through the portholes will remain.”
“These planter boxes were created with recycled materials from containers found at a do-it-yourself shop. It can be dismantled, stacked up. We made our own paint called flour paint or Swedish paint. It is made with water, flour, linseed oil, black soap, a little bit of powdered iron sulfate and natural pigments. It holds up well since this is used to paint houses in Sweden. In addition, the iron sulfate serves as a protection against fungi and the linseed makes the wood waterproof. It is quite simple to make it and cheap. For 10 liters of paint, we spent less than 50 euros (54 dollars).”
Lebay has started expanding the activity to residents in the locked down Alzheimer’s unit. At the time of my visit last summer, this activity was about to start. Once a week, she has been working with a small group of people and evaluating the benefits on their well-being. The day patients have been using the garden actively since last spring, sitting outside, having coffee there while soaking in the environment, watering and caring for the garden as needed. Several people have taken a leadership role in caring for the garden while others sit back and enjoy. “They are more relaxed and the garden has become a reflex. I am also happy that it has created a link between the day patients and the residents”, Lebay explained on another occasion. The team’s tenacious efforts have also paid off with two prizes last year. One came from the Fondation Truffaut, a foundation which was started by one of the main French gardening supplies chain to support gardening projects with a social, educational or therapeutic mission. In a related prize, online readers of a national senior magazine also picked Onzain’s garden as their favorite. This outside recognition has brought the garden many visitors from near and far, nurses and other staff members eager to start similar programs in their units. The spirit of Garden Seed is spreading very nicely.