Zenovia runs a gardening group at Common Roots as part of her clinic in the Department of Psychiatry at Dal, just a few blocks from the farm. She is also a a mushroomer, a herbalist, and a hobby farmer – and above all, a lover of plants.
SG. Are you a new or experienced gardener?
Zenovia: I would say I am an experienced gardener but I wouldn’t say an expert gardener. I’ve been gardening since I was a little girl. And I live on a hobby farm.
SG. In what countries have you gardened?
Zenovia: Besides Canada? New Zealand.
SG. Do you have a family connection to gardening or farming?
Zenovia: Yes, on both sides of my family. My dad was a gardener. He always had a garden. We ate vegetables from the garden. His mother was a gardener. She was also a wild mushroom picker, so when they came from the Ukraine, they were very poor and they grew a lot of their own food and they harvested mushrooms from the wild.
On the other side of my family, which is Welsh, my great grandfather was head gardener at Carnarvon Castle. And there was also market gardeners on that side of the family that would sell, I think it was in Bangor, Wales, they would sell their produce.
And then on my Mum’s side, but not related, my aunt’s husband – so my uncle but not blood uncle – he was an orchardist in the Okanagan valley, so I grew up spending summers on his farm picking cherries, peaches. So a heavy part of my childhood was being on a farm.
SG. What motivates you to garden?
Zenovia: We are human beings, we’re animals, living in the environment of the earth. We’re part of the environment and we’re totally sustained by living in the earth, and I think gardening connects us back into that ecological cycle. I think we can forget – when we live in urban environments we can forget where food and water come from. When you garden, you’re very aware of where your food comes from, how it grows, how the changes in the earth’s climate affect and impact your food production, right? Whether it’s raining, or whether you’ve had a long spell of drought, what phase of the moon is it, and how much sun have we had – all of that stuff, you become very of when you garden, and then you realize how interconnected everything is in our environment, and really value that. That’s not the reason I got attracted to gardening, but that’s the reason I know now that supports gardening.
I was attracted to gardening because I loved plants and I loved growing things and I thought it was cool to be able to watch things grow, and to be able to use them.
I started out herb gardening when I was little because I’ve always been fascinated by herbs – I’m a herbalist as well.
I totally think plants are amazing. What other creature in the planet that we know of is so useful and productive and so peaceful and so generous. They give us our bodies for nourishment, they give us their bodies for our houses and our homes, their materials for our clothing, and they take nothing from us.
SG. Except carbon dioxide!
Zenovia: Which is part of the cycle! They take nothing from us that hurts us, right? They give us oxygen, they take our waste products, they take our urine and our feces, and turn them into usable components. I admire plants! There’s no other being that has my respect like plants do. They’re like angels incarnate.
SG. If you were a plant, what plant would you be?
Zenovia: If I’m feeling like a good person, I’m a Black Elderberry. If I’m feeling like there’s a part of my dark personality that’s coming out, then I’m the Woody Nightshade.
The Black Elderberry is a plant of Celtic origin – it’s involved in fairy lore, they’re sacred trees, they produce medicine that’s extremely helpful to human beings – I make Elderberry syrup every fall, everybody in my family takes elderberry syrup throughout the winter to help fight off viral infections. And they’re beautiful. Elderflower infusions make great sorbets, super tasty… So that’s the good side.
The bad side, Woody Nightshade, is a poisonous plant. It’s a weed that grows all through Halifax, so it’s tenacious, you can see it growing. But it also has some medicinal qualities (I’m not well versed in them but I know it does). It’s this very tenacious weed that has these really beautiful little purple flowers that have yellow centres, and then they make these green fruit that later ripen to turn red. So right now, if you looked at them in the wild, they’d be in their green fruit stage; some of them would still be flowering but the flowers are so beautiful. I just think it’s this amazing, beautiful, tenacious, dangerous plant.
SG. Are you a social or solitary gardener?
Zenovia: Most of my time is spent solitary. I do do social gardening, because I run a gardening group. I have people who work with me on my hobby farm. But I prefer solitary gardening because I like people, and if I’m with someone, I’ll end up talking to them and forget about the gardening. So I like being able to focus on the plants when I’m with them. I’m not a very good gardener because I’m a chatty person.
SG. What about gardening stresses you out? What about gardening relaxes you?
Zenovia: Not having enough time to garden stresses me out, when I see the weeds overtaking my garden. Porcupines, deer eating things I’ve planted and nourished from little tiny plants – that stresses me out. Anything that destroys my garden obviously stresses me out.
What relaxes me? Being around a whole bunch of amazing beings that have no demands on me and are very giving and beautiful. That’s what relaxes me.
It’s like I’m around all these creatures who have no expectations of me… they might, but I’m not aware of them. Maybe to nourish them, too, but they don’t ask me for things that I can’t give them. Or I’m not aware of them doing that.
And I like being outside in the sun.
SG. What is the most underrated activity in gardening?
Zenovia: Weeding! It’s actually very – I was weeding yesterday and I was like “This is so satisfying!” They were coming out nice and easily, and I saw the patch clear, and I can plant something else, and I was like, “Oh this is a lot more satisfying [than I thought.]”
SG. What childhood fear do you still have as an adult?
Zenovia: I will be eaten by a wild animal. Right now it’s sharks, but before it could have been bears or something.
SG. What is an urban farm?
Zenovia: An urban farm can be anywhere where people put the intention of creating a space that supports plants to live. Plants that are more than just aesthetic value – plants that can help us with food or medicine. I think there are lots of spaces that are beautiful aesthetically where plants are living, like parks (well actually a lot of people don’t know this but there is a lot of medicinal and potentially food value in parks), but I think the farm to me is that, as a human, we expect that space to provide us with nourishment – physical sustenance rather than just emotional or spiritual sustenance. Food or medicine.
SG. What have you learned through Common Roots Urban Farm?
Zenovia: Well, that an idea of a garden can expand and grow over years to become this amazing space. It’s been amazing to watch that idea flourish, and create this huge space where there’s people of different cultures coming together. I guess I’m just learning about the value that it has to offer the community, and that it was doable.
To see that it’s a space that I see people attracted to and using, and people from different walks of life – the hospital staff I see going there, people who I think are probably patients going in there, people who are working in there, people from all different… that it can be a place of unity where people get together who might not normally get together.
SG. Has Common Roots introduced you to new people? To different cultures?
Zenovia: Yep. I don’t spend a lot of time in the garden, but people asking little questions and comparing what they’re growing to what I’m growing – just little conversations. If I spent more time there it would go deeper.
SG. Has Common Roots affected your attitude to food?
Zenovia: I think a lot of the values were already aligned with me. The two things that I became aware of is that – what an amazing idea to grow food for food banks.
And also, last year we ran a cooking group that was tied into the gardening group. So our patients would go out, we’d pick a few things from the garden, or we’d buy stuff from the Common Roots Urban Farm [market stand], and we’d bring it up to our Occupational Therapy kitchen and do a cooking class with it. So it allowed us to teach some of our patients the relationship of food to cooking to health.
SG. How does Common Roots contribute to healing and health?
Zenovia: Obviously the people that go there, I think, are going to benefit. I have my patients in my clinic that I take there, but I also have referred other patients to go work there. And I know they have benefited from making social connections that they didn’t have before, building self-efficacy in being able to have their skills recognized by a community, and build their self-esteem because they’re able to contribute; spending lots of time outside in the sun and getting some vitamin D, in a country that’s prone to vitamin D deficiencies; being in an environment that promotes relaxation. So for me, that’s sort of general stuff.
For my [clinical gardening] group, I’ve taught people how to grow food, healthy food, you know – vegetables. Research has demonstrated that the mediterranean diet can help with depression. The Mediterranean diet is heavy in vegetables. We can grow vegetables at the farm and get people interested in the idea of growing vegetables, especially people who have low incomes. Teach them how to prepare vegetables so they know what to do with vegetables when they get them.
I’ve also taught people very simple herbs that grow in the garden – how to use them to help relieve their anxiety, how to help them fall asleep at night, how to get extra antioxidants in their diet. One of the factors in why people’s brains get mental illness is because of oxidative stress, and some of the herbs that we grow in the garden are really great antioxidants; things like rosemary, things like peppermint. So people start getting more of those types of herbs, learning how to use those medicinal, culinary herbs in their diet, they’re going to help their bodies deal with oxidative stress. It’s not the only factor in their mental illness, but it is one of them. So it’s going to help their diet, help improve their mental diet.
What else? It helps lower my stress, because I get to go outside and do something that I love doing. Because I find sitting in an office where I don’t get access to fresh air and sunshine, and I have to sit at a desk, which is not the healthiest position for my body to be in, so it helps me as a staff person, who works in this hospital, to be healthier, because I get to go out and move my body in a whole bunch of different ways, getting some exercise, getting some fresh air, getting some sunshine, and do something that I actually love to do while doing patient care.
SG. What’s your best Common Roots Urban Farm story?
Zenovia: I have been running some herbal workshops in the month of July, where I introduce people to different herbs in the garden, and I remember, I was sitting there, I think there were 5 patients and three staff from our clinic sitting there in a circle, and I was passing around some lemon balm. And, you know, most people don’t know about lemon balm even though it’s a really common herb, very easy to grow, with culinary and medicinal uses. And people were smelling it and tasting it, and it was so nice to see people’s reactions to it, because it’s such a beautiful plant, and to see smiles come onto their faces as the smell it, and just seeing this appreciation arise in all those people’s faces, that was pretty… so that was one of my better moments, just seeing people appreciate and enjoy it.
SG. How has Common Roots made a difference to your life?
Zenovia: There’s a very practical difference in that it gives me a way to introduce some important skills and knowledge to patients about growing food and its impact on our physical and mental health.
But also, at another level, it’s just inspirational, that our hospital system embraced this, that the QEII system would embrace this, because I think it’s such a part of healing – is at a physical, emotional, spiritual level, being in touch with nature, and our relationship with nature is part of what helps us to heal. And I’m just so glad that QEII has embraced it and that it’s been flourishing.
For example, I brought in a well-known American herbalist – one of the key herbalists in the United States – to give a talk last year to the Department of Psychiatry, and we were trying to think of how, after he gave his presentation in the morning, to entertain him and show him things in Halifax because he’d never been to Nova Scotia before. And I took him out to the farm, and I felt so proud, showing him this farm, because to me it really represents in some ways the Western medical system embracing some of the complementary healing practices. And I think that that’s a model for the rest of North America, perhaps the world. So I felt really proud to show him. He said “This is so amazing! It’s so amazing that you have this here!” I’m really proud that our Foundation was open-minded enough to embrace this. That’s inspiring. It makes me want to work here.