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Cultivating Health: The Story of Growing Gardens' Rx Gardens Program

home gardens in our own words

How it Began

In 2022, Growing Gardens partnered with Providence Milwaukie Hospital to expand Spanish-speaking support at the hospital’s Garden of Giving and Community Teaching Kitchen, launching the Rx Gardens program through Home Gardens. Through free gardening workshops and culinary classes, Rx Gardens encourages the connections between health, gardening, and community to use gardening as a preventative healthcare practice. The Garden of Giving serves both as a site for holistic health interventions for patients in the hospital and for educational programming that aims to support the holistic health of the larger community. “It is connecting nature and health,” Roma Leiva, the Partnership Coordinator for Providence Milwaukie, said. “It is also focused for Spanish speakers, so there’s a double importance and connection.”


The Garden of Giving began at Providence Hospital in 2010 by a group of nurses, who maintained the garden for pay for the next 10 years. Back then, harvests from the garden were donated to nearby food pantries and affordable housing communities. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the garden fell into disuse until April 2022, when the Growing Gardens partnership began. Growing Gardens, along with hospital caregivers and CTK workers, spent a month restoring the 48 garden boxes and building soil and compost at the site to get it ready for use again. During its first year back in use, the garden produced 2,000 pounds of produce, which is used in the Community Teaching Kitchen. 


The goal of an on-site garden, however, is to emphasize the process of gardening as a health intervention as well as the end result of fresh produce and nutritious meals. Eventually, Home Gardens hopes that doctors in the hospital will be able to prescribe time in the garden to patients as an official health intervention, making “Rx Gardens” a literal term.


“There is a lot of talk about prevention in healthcare,” Rashae Burns, who worked in healthcare prior to her current role as Home Gardens Director, said. Preventative healthcare focuses on upstream causes of health issues, looking to lifestyle factors and social determinants of health, such as food access and opportunities for outdoor exercise. “These are all things that gardening can help. It is one of the most preventative practices out there.” 


Cooking and Gardening Classes

The CTK classes are free, taught in Spanish, and led by dieticians from the hospital and chefs. Some participants are referred to the classes by doctors at Providence Milwaukie, but the classes are also open to the public. They focus on cooking for diabetes prevention through a culturally relevant approach. This often means teaching more creative recipes to participants who share a common framework of cooking skills and experience. Participants in the classes harvest produce from the garden themselves, integrating an active lifestyle and time outside into a cooking practice. 


“People can’t eat better without food access,” Roma said. By offering garden workshops alongside cooking classes, Rx Gardens aims to empower people to grow their own food as well as prepare it. It doesn’t matter if people know how to cook a healthy meal if fresh produce is unaffordable or not available in their neighborhoods, due to a system that is founded on racist principles and designed to be inequitable. Connecting the garden and the kitchen encourages this systemic view instead of blaming individuals.


Throughout the year, Rx Gardens offers four series of six-week workshops and culinary classes. Gardening classes are taught both in English and Spanish, and are free and open to anyone. “We ask people what they want to learn,” Roma said, noting that many participants are first-time gardeners. “People then leave with an overview of how to start a home garden.”


Classes often cover transplanting, growing from seeds, harvesting, pruning, cover cropping, and more. Beyond technical skills, the workshops aim to empower people in their relationships with nature, with the belief that this can be as important to gardeners’ health as the nutrients from the vegetables they grow. The gardening methods that Rx Gardens teaches in workshops are not only joyful and healthy for humans, but for the earth as well, and emphasize accessibility in all environments and learning from experience.


Participants learn to create sustainable and healthy gardens where all kinds of living things are welcome. “There are no such things as weeds, there are no bad plants,” Roma said. “Everyone is welcome in the garden, you don't need to worry about small amounts of pests.”


Roma likes to teach that all plants and insects can be beneficial in certain contexts and that all parts of a plant have value, not only the parts that are traditionally harvested. For example, garlic scapes can make a delicious pesto, and squash blossoms can be fried and eaten. Instead of harmful commercial pesticides, she teaches gardeners to use materials they already have in their home and garden, such as tomato leaves, for pest control. She encourages people to connect with nature inside as well as outside, through growing houseplants and microgreens.


Growing different plants and learning to cook with them can connect people with their own cultures and learn about new ones. Cultural relevance is central to Rx Gardens’ understanding of holistic health. By offering classes in Spanish, Rx Gardens hopes to empower people to garden in a climate that may differ from places they are originally from, working with new seasonal changes, crops, and soil. 



The Garden of Giving is sustained by volunteer work, with open volunteer hours from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. every Thursday. This framework aims to emphasize the reciprocal relationship that can exist between a garden and a community. While the labor required to maintain the garden would not be possible without the work of volunteers, volunteering offers participants a chance to connect with their community and spend time outdoors. Volunteer work includes a variety of tasks throughout the season, including replacing boxes, weeding, cleaning, and harvesting. 

No experience is required to volunteer in the garden. Rx Gardens hopes that volunteering can be an educational experience, where community members can learn more about gardening and prioritize time outdoors.


“I don’t judge, ” Roma said of welcoming new gardeners. “Don’t be afraid to learn from your mistakes.” She encourages volunteers to bring new ideas to the garden, as experimentation often leads to something great. “This is the first partnership, so why not?”


Future Plans

Currently, dieticians at the hospital hold appointments outside in the garden. These can be stressful conversations, and having them in a beautiful natural environment offers emotional and spiritual benefits, emphasizing the need to consider these factors when addressing physical health. “We hope to have it be more dynamic and open,” Roma said of the connection between the Garden of Giving and everyday practices at the hospital. She hopes that eventually, psychiatry appointments can be held in the garden as well, and that CTK classes will be offered outside to emphasize the relationship between harvesting and cooking.


Through its programming, Rx Gardens hopes to help people both in and out of the healthcare field formulate new understandings of well-being. “Walking, relaxing, and eating well can be preventative,” Roma said. 

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