By Kathy Hageman, Reflector-Chronicle. Courtesy Abilene-RC.com
There’s something relaxing and therapeutic about putting a plant in the soil and watching it grow, especially coming out of a long winter.
As temperatures warm up, many are anxious to get outdoors and begin their own plant therapy, which means it is a good time for the Saturday and Sunday grand opening of Cedar House Greenhouse, 307 NE 14th.
The hours are 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays and noon to 3 p.m. Sundays. The greenhouse will be open throughout the season, only on weekends.
Located in the former Bergstrom’s Heartland Plants, Cedar House Greenhouse shares the building with Reynolds Real Estate. Follow the sidewalk on the west side of the building to enter.
Walking inside, visitors see hundreds of green plants, interspersed with pops of color from unique artwork. At the same time, they hear the sound of classical music and gurgling water from the tanks used to aquaponically supply nutrients for the plants. Rotating umbrellas on the wall, driven by a pulley system, also draw attention.
It’s an experience of “Motion, Sight and Sound,” which just happens to be the 2019 theme for the greenhouse.
Surprising to some
The Cedar House facility offers unusual plants, including bananas and edible figs, ornamentals, a huge selection of succulents and thousands of vegetable plants.
“We counted over 1,300 tomatoes, peppers and flowering plants. We have 43 varieties of edible figs,” said Patti O’Malley, Cedar House visionary and organizer.
When the greenhouse opened last summer, it was a surprise to some.
“We love to hear people’s comments when they come through the door. Most are surprised because their wife sent them down to get cherry tomatoes and they’re like, ‘Oh, this is more than I signed up for,’ ” O’Malley said with a laugh. “But people are starting to learn. We’re just starting to learn, too. Last year was our first year and we didn’t even know we could do it. But we proved to ourselves we could. So this year, we went in with all we’ve got.”
Keeping busy in winter
The Cedar House operation is not your typical greenhouse. It grew out of a program O’Malley developed a few years ago as a wintertime activity for the women who live at Cedar House recovery home in rural Abilene.
Cedar House is a nonprofit organization comprised of a community of women recovering from addictions and the effects of addiction.
“I started getting frustrated in the winter time because winters are long in Kansas, or they feel long,” O’Malley said. “I noticed there was so much down time, which I felt wasn’t healthy. There’s little sunshine, no fresh air, people are cooped up, so I started a sprouting project, using a small high tunnel. We got some free plants and said, ‘Let’s see if we can grow them.’ ”
From that first high tunnel, or hoop house, the growing project grew to include a 48-by-20-foot structure where the women grow culinary herbs and other edibles. The women participated in the farmer’s market in Abilene, but it soon became apparent something else was needed.
“The residents came up to me and said, ‘So now what, Patti?’ Then a week later, John Kolhoff, owner of Reynolds Real Estate, came to me and said, ‘Do you want to use the greenhouse?’ We started moving in plants and last year was our first opening.
“I just wanted a green space in the wintertime and it worked beyond my wildest imagination,” O’Malley added, with a laugh. “We learned aquaponics. We learned to raise fish that fertilized the plants. Then we learned how to cycle the tanks, and now we’re raising tilapia, which are edible.”
Any money generated by the greenhouse on 14th Street goes back into the growing program and Cedar House Food Bank.
“People don’t realize that we are trying to sustain a food bank. We have gardens with tomatoes, peppers, melons. That is for our food bank,” O’Malley explained. “We are the only food bank in the state of Kansas that delivers food to people. The Cedar House residents run the food bank and take the help calls, then we go in pairs and deliver food to people’s houses.
“We try to fill the gap when the local food bank might not be open, or it’s five o’clock on Friday and we get a call from someone who says, ‘We don’t have food for the kids,’ ” she explained.
One recent delivery involved delivering food to a person who couldn’t get out because they were waiting for a transplant. Another was to a person who had just had their last chemo treatment who couldn’t go out because it was the height of flu season.
“We are trying to serve a population that cannot get to our local food bank,” O’Malley said. “The other ones are people who can’t get to the local food bank because they can’t get out during the hours it’s open. Maybe they don’t have a car or they work during that time.
“We get our food from Wichita, like the food bank in Abilene, but we’re really big on making sure we can get fresh produce in there. We want to get fresh produce in people’s hands,” she said.
Cedar House Food Bank, which serves Abilene and the surrounding area, started five years ago on a “shoestring budget” as a 501(c)(3) non-profit.
“We have very limited funding, so we have to use our limited resources to buy the food or grow the food. We actually just got a count from Wichita and we’ve fed over 23,000 meals since we started our program,” Patti said.
The food bank has a dual purpose, she explained.
“When the residents come in, they’re the ones that had their hands out. They were the ones going to food banks, going to the shelters and going to any place they could with their addiction — food came second. What we’re trying to do is flip that switch. So immediately when they get into our program they are net givers, not net takers.”
Proceeds from the greenhouse go toward helping Cedar House become a self-sustaining program. While that may still be a couple years away from being a reality, O’Malley said that is the goal.
“We want to be the givers in the community so we are paying our own way,” O’Malley said.
Besides the plants, the other thing visitors to the 14th Street greenhouse will notice is the art on the walls and hanging throughout the facility.
“This is an art installation wrapped around a greenhouse,” Patti said.
Besides the growing program, art therapy is another component of the Cedar House recovery plan. Not only does it keep Cedar House residents occupied during long winter days, but it also gives the women an opportunity to learn about themselves. Many find they have untapped talents.
Gesturing to a canvas painted with horses, O’Malley explained one of the new residents created it. Others may paint on glass. Some might hollow out gourds to create birdhouses. Others do different things.
O’Malley said she has an art background, which has come in handy.
“Really, it’s just giving them the space, the material and the opportunity. We tell them, ‘Don’t be afraid of it, go for it,’ ” Patti said. “Then the self-pride comes out when they say, ‘Gosh, I didn’t know I could do this.’ ”
Most of the residentfs who come to Cedar House are down pretty far, but O’Malley said that seeing them learn they can grow a plant or create a piece of art gives them something to be proud of.
“Some of these girls have had nothing to be proud of for a really long time, so when people come into the greenhouse and say, ‘This is so pretty,’ I can see them (girls) heal. I can watch them heal,” she said.
“That’s why I like to step out of the way and say, ‘You did this. This is yours!’ ”