At a staff-appreciation cookout during the summer, members of OhioHealth Dublin Methodist Hospital’s surgery team ran out of tomatoes.
Fortunately, they didn’t have far to go for more: They were eating on a patio off the break room in the surgical unit, so they plucked some straight from a nearby vine.
“We have a lot of tomatoes, especially during the peak season,” said Meredith Biederman, the nurse manager for surgical services. “People love the cherry tomatoes because they’re so easy to pick and eat.”
For about 18 months now, a surgical-unit garden — roughly two dozen planters of varying sizes lining the periphery of the patio — has flourished.
The open-air space, accessible only by surgeons and the roughly 125 members of the surgical staff, provides a place for the employees to hone their green thumbs or enjoy a fresh snack.
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Dr. Gregory Berlet, an orthopedic surgeon, came up with the idea, imagining the garden as an oasis from the demanding work of surgery.
“In the operating room, it’s sterile and there are lots of rules about how we govern,” Berlet said. “My staff has a very stressful job, and I need their breaks to be restorative.”
A garden, he figured, would provide a respite from the tension of the OR and the sickness and pain of a hospital environment.
“It’s a very ‘unhospital’ thing to do,” Berlet said, “and that’s why I like it.”
Surgical technician Jay Rowe, an avid gardener at home, assumed responsibility for the effort.
“It’s always a big challenge with Mother Nature, the bugs and getting it right without too much water,” he said. “You’re keeping your eyes open, trying to figure out if something is eating your plant and trying to figure out why something isn’t developing.”
The trick, Rowe said, has been finding plants that can thrive close to the ground in pots, don’t need a lot of water and like the sun — the kind of setting the patio offers.
“Some things aren’t happy up here in a box,” he said. “The peppers do great. The cucumber plants we had up here last year, if we forgot to water them one day, they looked terrible.”
Tomatoes and herbs, he said, are plentiful in the summer; peas have been hit-or-miss.
The first year out, Rowe didn’t plant anything during the fall or winter. This year, though, he has tackled some heartier vegetables — cabbage, Brussels sprouts and kohlrabi (a German turnip) — that prefer cooler temperatures.
He enjoys growing vegetables that might be unfamiliar to his co-workers, he said.
Originally, Berlet funded the garden through his family’s foundation; this year, after a successful 2016, the OhioHealth Foundation also provided help, buying an irrigation system.
“It turns the place into something more than concrete and brick,” Rowe said. “It creates a sense of community and a little bit of cohesiveness for the surgery crew.”
During the summer, Dr. B.J Pomerants, chief of surgery, planted and tended a specific variety of tomatoes that he wanted. Other employees have helped with watering (before the irrigation system) and weeding during breaks.
One co-worker brought in a blender to make salsa from the tomatoes, herbs and “viciously hot peppers,” Rowe said.
All staff are invited to eat from the garden, with Rowe striving to educate co-workers on proper harvesting times.
Nurse Jennifer Meszaros and surgical technician Sarrah Carle reflected recently about the summer days when the strawberries were ripe — “Those went fast,” Carle said — and they could pick mint (including a chocolate variety) and lavender to flavor their water.
Carle also clipped some mint leaves to take home.
“It’s expensive,” Carle said. “He had jalapenos out there that I took, too.”
Hearing how much her staff enjoys the fruits — and veggies — of the garden, Biederman decided that she should use it more.
“I didn’t know people took all these things,” she said. “If the sage is still out, I’ll take some for Thanksgiving.”