'Put your hands in some dirt': Rooftop garden delivers food, improved mental health

A rooftop garden at Youth Opportunities Unlimited in London grows fresh vegetables and herbs for the You Made it Cafe.

London's Youth Opportunities Unlimited uses garden to enhance cafe meals, create a tranquil retreat

A rooftop garden in the heart of the city is allowing London's Youth Opportunities Unlimited (YOU) to supply its successful street-level café with fresh herbs and vegetables.

The You Made It Café at Richmond and York streets is a social enterprise where young people can acquire skills in customer service and food preparation.

But the garden also provides therapeutic benefits, according to executive director Steve Cordes.

"You can get out of your own head space, your own challenges — even learning and training can sometimes be a challenge," says Cordes. "In a gardening space, your guard is down, you're more relaxed. You're in a beautiful outdoor space and you can just be yourself."

The project has been so successful that this year YOU hired a dedicated gardener to oversee the project. Megan Papadakos calls her working space a community-based garden because it includes the contributions of youth in the café program and others in the city including, the Alzheimer's Society.

The garden consists of separate vegetable and flower zones. The flowers help deter pests but the two zones have to be kept apart to ensure safe food handling in the café.

The vegetables grown include zucchinis, peppers and tomatoes. There's even a row of corn.

"It won't be enough to produce large amounts, but it's going to be an excellent opportunity for youth to learn that corn is both a male and female and how it germinates itself," said Papadakos.

The rooftop garden also produces a variety of perennial herbs, which she says can be a challenge. They don't always survive the winter, but Papadakos says even failures in the garden can be a learning experience for youth.

Garden work 'makes you feel better'

Ashley Wyatt, who has struggled with mental health issues, entered YOU's café program as a youth last November and was hired on recently as a mentor.

"When I first started going to therapy, my therapist told me: 'If you want to start feeling better, go outside, get some sunshine, put your hands in some dirt.'"

Wyatt followed that advice in the backyard of her home.

"Having a garden, you can watch those plants grow and nurture right before your eyes. And it makes you feel better, it makes you feel wholesome that you brought that to life."

Wyatt has watched other youth at YOU pour their passions into gardening.

"We have a couple of the youth that now want to go into horticulture. They're making life plans and life experience out of it, and that's really amazing."