Austin Red Dog is a man on a mission: with a pruner in hand, he carefully moves large stems of a zucchini plant, inspecting each one before finding a squash that is ripe for the picking. Soon his arms are filled with plump and succulent squash.
“We will prepare this for residents to eat. It will feed them for a while,” said Red Dog as he happily looked at his yield.
Gardening is one activity that Red Dog is passionate about – for the past three years, he has worked at the New Hope Homeless Shelter in Eagle Butte as a gardener. On any given day, you will find Red Dog tending to the various plants that robustly grow and blossom there.
He has a unique perspective about planting, caring for and cultivating plants — besides the advantage of growing one’s own food, he believes it offers another important benefit: therapy.
“When our hands and feet are deep in soil, there are bacteria in the soil that can enter our body through contact. This bacteria releases serotonin in our brains that naturally makes us feel good. Not only that, the physical activity of working in a garden helps us sweat, and that itself will help with one’s physical and mental state,” said Red Dog.
According to the American Horticultural Therapy Association, the practice of using gardens to improve overall physical and mental health is called horticulture therapy and its benefits have been documented as far as back as the 19th Century.
The Journal of Therapeutic Horticulture is a peer-reviewed journal that publishes research and case studies of this alternative form of therapy. Such studies include using plants to invoke sensory perception to rehabilitate individuals addicted to alcohol, and the use of hands-on horticultural activities during treatment for trauma.
Case studies such as these have an intimate and real connection for Red Dog- he sees positive therapeutic results in his daily work.
“I’ve seen many residents who have had to drop their guard to open up to the idea of taking care of a plant. Caring for something helps residents with a sense of responsibility. Many of our people suffer from mental health issues, addictions and trauma,” said Red Dog.
The garden at the shelter has been successful in part to the assistance of community volunteers and organizations from across the country, and most importantly, from the help of those who reside at the shelter.
“We have residents who have helped throughout the season, whether it be with prepping starters, building high tunnels, building raised bed boxes, or collecting medicines,” said Red Dog.
On this warm day, two volunteers are building a fence for morning glory flowers to grow on. One takes a moment to gather the numerous squash that Red Dog has harvested.
“I love it here. We eat good organic food that we helped grow. It’s mostly what we eat every day,” he said with a smile.
Red Dog gets back to his work, carefully inspecting each plant before moving on to the next one. As he wipes sweat from his forehead, he offers this insight:
“Growing a garden and handling dirt is easy, but you have to be ready to care for the plants that are living and breathing. I encourage everyone to try it – grow at least two plants. Our relatives have to start over sometimes and this is what we are hoping to help with — new hope.”
For more information about the shelter and garden, you may call 605-964-8673.