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Gardens4Good: Cultivating Community, Nourishing Lives

In the heart of Paris, a unique initiative is blossoming on the rooftop of the Annie Girardot nursing home. Gardens4Good, or Planète Potager as it's known in French, is not just a garden but a transformative project supported by EIT Community NEB that aims to promote non-profit food gardens for a healthier life and a healthier planet.

12 Mar 2024
EIT Food West

Annie Girardot, a deceased French actress who developed Alzheimer’s towards the end of her career, lends her name to this nursing home that caters to individuals living with the same disease. The third-floor rooftop, an unexpected sanctuary, hosts a vibrant vegetable garden—a brainchild of Christophe Gadenne, a former law enforcement professional turned vegetable grower.

It’s also where most of the residents live. A UK study revealed that people with access to vegetable gardens consume 70% more fruits and vegetables – and after reading it, Christophe knew the residents of the home and their carers would reap the immediate benefits.

Following a period of retraining in urban farming in 2021, Christophe’s original idea to start a farm in the countryside had turned into a different dream of a greener, cleaner Paris. Coupled with his soft spot for the elderly, he reached out directly to a few nursing homes to pitch his unique proposal.

Christophe is Annie Girardot's roof garden

Perfect partnership

The Annie Girardot Residence was a dream location and delighted to act as host. The residence shared Christophe’s vision for a community garden, and could offer a large, accessible roof, and plenty of permanent senior residents and day-boarders to engage. Still in its nascent stages, the garden won’t be ready for harvest until the Spring. But after joining EIT Community’s New European Bauhaus (NEB) programme in January, Gardens4Good now has the support to amplify its impact beyond this first pilot in Paris.

“I’m so excited to see where EIT Community’s support can take us. My goal is to inspire others to take up similar projects in their local areas – and with EIT Community’s knowledge, create a strategy to have as widespread an impact as possible,” Christophe explains.

His vision reflects the driving force behind Gardens4Good beyond simply the cultivation of vegetables and towards the cultivation of community. Gardens4Good’s roots aim to mobilise a broader movement and lifestyle change in a bustling metropolitan city. Picture independent community gardens sprouting across Paris, encouraging citizens to embrace sustainable, cost-effective projects that connect them with nature and each other. Already operating social media accounts in English as well as French, Gardens4Good is well on its way to securing a wider reach.

It's the perfect marriage of an EIT Community Food project taken to another level by embodying New European Bauhaus values of sustainability, beauty, and togetherness. “We are hoping to inspire people to do the same in their own communities, starting vegetable gardens everywhere! We don’t need a pyramid structure; we want to inspire a decentralised drive of similar own-initiative community gardens. It’s also more cost effective!” Christophe shares.

Immediate impact, continuous gratification

For Annie Girardot residents, the primary idea was to create a lively square that thrived regardless of the weather. And even in developmental stages, long before harvest season, the garden has immeasurably impacted the lives of surrounding residents.

The garden not only adds vibrancy to the nursing home but also serves as a therapeutic space for the residents. Nurses have noted a significant psychological impact, especially on those battling depression. Residents actively participating in the garden experience improved morale and often develop healthier eating habits, reducing food waste and fostering a sense of connection to the food they helped grow.

“Some elderly residents can’t even talk anymore – but they can easily communicate with their eyes. It’s still possible to connect with them by exchanging looks. It makes them visibly happy to be actively involved in planting and watering – especially when it’s sunny.”

- Christophe Gadenne, Gardens4People CFO - Chief Farmer Officer

“In the Spring, I hope they go out in the garden regularly to see the budding leaves, flowers, then the fruits – which they will eventually be able to eat.”

The residence also believes regular contact with the growing process will lower residents’ instincts to crave sugary, processed food as well as leading to less food waste thanks to changed consumption habits.

Residents and volunteers preparing seedling pots for planting

“When the residents eat, they are more motivated to eat healthily, having become familiar with the food they helped grow. Activity coordinators have noticed that residents sometimes forget mealtimes. It’s a challenge getting them to eat and drink regularly, and the vegetable garden is a continuous reminder for them,” Christophe explains further.

The garden has quickly developed into a source of joy, a space where even non-verbal communication through exchanged glances bridges the gap between the residents and their carers. Now when it rains, instead of making them sad, residents take comfort in the natural watering of the garden. It gives them something concrete to look forward to – throughout the changing seasons of the garden and their lives.

“I found it funny that we had to pivot from the first day to accommodate interest from residents. We thought they would be drawn in by the results, but they wanted to be involved in the entire process,” Christophe reflects. “We suggested to one of the residents that they would plant a grapevine. She responded positively and even recalled her grandparents’ vineyard from her childhood.”

Activities that engage residents with the garden are not superficial events; they're an integral part of their lives. The garden’s overall positive impact is so tangible, that a volunteer art teacher has asked to host upcoming classes in the middle of the garden to boost residents’ creativity – “a perfect illustration of NEB values” according to Christophe.

Marianne Lemberger, EIT Community Programme Manager, echoed the sentiment:

“This is exactly the sort of own-initiative project we want to empower citizens to take up! If you have an idea that improves and beautifies local communities and has a positive environmental impact, our range of programmes could provide the training and tools you need to bring it to life.”

- Marianne Lemberger, EIT Community Programme Manager

Growing pains

The journey has not been without its challenges, and any support is welcome. To keep costs low Gardens4Good relies on upcycling materials, handcrafting planters from locally sourced items, and eschewing vehicle transport to reduce carbon emissions. Christophe explains how painstaking such a process can be:

“Whenever you use collected materials instead of buying them online, it takes less paperwork but significantly more time. We chose to make our own soil from fallen leaves in the city and the residence’s kitchen scraps – it was a huge time commitment, slowing our momentum and draining energies.”

Time management has emerged as a significant challenge, with the team juggling the meticulous process of upcycling, soil creation, and planting to keep up with rapid seasonal changes.

A few strategic choices have helped the project overcome tight time constraints. Perennials make up 50% of the produce grown in the garden – meaning they only need to be planted once to keep producing fruit. A limited range of fruits and vegetables cuts down on maintenance and workload. Where nursing home activities usually require extensive preparation, the contained concept of the garden leaves room for spontaneity with the support of a firm structure that saves time and money.

Engaging activities for nursing home residents include building homes for friendly pollinators (left) and nature-inspired art classes (right)

Beaming, Christophe remains firm: “This is the recipe for a low-cost garden, financially and in terms of time spent, that can be easily replicated for different communities. Get rid of barriers to entry by simplifying the concept!”

The inaugural launch of the Gardens4Good is set for June, where strawberries will be picked off the vines and all the plants will be in full view. This annual celebration not only engages residents but also invites the wider community to partake in the joy of the harvest, accompanied by live music and festivities.

It proves that Gardens4Good is not just a garden; it's a living tapestry interwoven with the stories of the elderly residents and carers, the vision of its founder, and the support of EIT Community’s NEB and Food programmes. As it continues to grow, the garden serves as a testament to the profound impact that simple, community-driven initiatives can have on the lives of individuals, their environment, and the planet.

All photos © Gardens4Good/Christophe Gadenne

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