Theresa Locke proudly showed off her eggplant, habanero peppers, and her okra plant. However, something had been munching on most of her tomato plants.
Her peppers are her favorite to grow.
“I really enjoy growing the peppers and seeing them grow from green to yellow or orange and red,” Locke said.
As the Ozark resident talked about her vegetables growing in containers on her back patio, she waited for members of the Claybank Master Gardeners to arrive for their final official visit with Locke as part of a research study called Harvest for Health.
In 2018, Locke was accepted into the study and received planting containers on wheels for her vegetables, getting gardening help from local master gardeners. Today, Locke’s vegetables grow not only in those containers but in a variety of numerous pots and Locke hopes to become a master gardener herself.
Diagnosed with breast cancer in 2015, Locke was introduced to Harvest for Health by her radiation oncologist. After her supplies arrived, two master gardeners came to her home and helped her plant and position her containers.
“Really, I hadn’t thought about the sun, the shade,” Locke said. “I’m glad I did select the containers because they have wheels, and as the sun or shade and seasons change, I have actually moved the garden from say on the south side over to the east side of the house… they really taught me a lot of things about gardening that I had not really thought about before.”
Funded by the National Cancer Institute, Harvest for Health was started at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) in 2013 with a small pilot study, which was followed up with studies on specific types of cancer patients, such as breast cancer survivors and older survivors.
This round of Harvest for Health will involve the most participants of any of the previous studies. UAB will follow 426 older cancer survivors from across the state for two years. The research team is hoping to get 58 participants from Houston, Dale, and Coffee counties – those local counties where master gardeners have volunteered their services for the study. To be considered, participants must be over age 60 and have completed their primary treatment such as surgery, radiation or chemotherapy and currently not raise vegetables.
UAB will provide seedlings for gardens as well as materials for a raised bed in the participant’s yard or the large gardening containers on wheels.
Researchers know from the smaller studies that the gardening has made a difference for cancer survivors, particularly those over age 60 and more at risk for declines due the effects of cancer and treatments. With this larger study, researchers hope to prove the benefits, according to Jennifer Bail, a National Cancer Institute-supported postdoctoral fellow with UAB’s Cancer Prevention and Control Training Program.
“Does having a vegetable garden help cancer survivors eat more vegetables, be more physically active, and improve their physical-functioning, their quality of life?” Bail said. “And if we can show, yes, it is effective and, yes, it can do that … what we would like to do is see this rolled out on a national level.”
With a Cooperative Extension System in every state, packaging Harvest for Health for use elsewhere would be easy enough as long as there is funding available.
Researchers collect data on participants’ height, weight, body fat percentage, and physical functions such as getting up and down out of a chair, grip strength, walking across a room. Master gardeners take photos during their visits with participants to document the garden.
Bette Byrd of Ozark was initially diagnosed with breast cancer in 2010. After she was accepted into the Harvest for Health study, she was diagnosed with stage 4 bone cancer. That was in 2014.
Like Theresa Locke, Byrd opted for the containers on wheels and even went out and bought more on her own. She has grown broccoli, carrots, herbs, zucchini, strawberries, onions, watermelon and cantaloupe in her containers.
At 71, Byrd said she thinks eating those vegetables is the reason she’s still alive.
“I’m convinced that that program is the reason that I’m here, that I’m alive,” Byrd said. “The vegetables, I think, have lots of wonderful properties. Medicines used to be natural. They used to be made from plants and vegetables and things from the forest. I’m pretty amazed because I’ve had cancer since 2010 and stage 4 since 2014.”
While Harvest for Health does not accept participants with stage 4 cancer, UAB has received numerous inquiries from families of such patients, Bail said. That has led to the possibility of a new gardening program specifically for stage 4 cancer patients – Harvest for Hope. It would be done in a community garden approach rather than individual gardens and participants could plant whatever they wanted to plant.
Across Alabama, 316 master gardeners have volunteered their time to the study. Locally, there’s been no shortage of master gardeners willing to give their time, according to Lucy Edwards, a regional agent with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System.
“It allows us to do our goal, which is to educate the public of Alabama for a better quality of life,” Edwards said. “So the master gardeners, hopefully, are helping these individuals achieve a better quality of life through this program or at least learn something, maybe. Hopefully, they’ve had a few laughs along the way.”
Tom Boyle, a member of the Wiregrass Master Gardeners, has volunteered with Harvest for Health for four years. During his first year volunteering, he was diagnosed with lung cancer and became a cancer survivor himself. The 74-year-old Boyle teaches the vegetable gardening portion of the master gardening course and said he understand from his own experience how beneficial gardening can be for your health.
“It doesn’t matter whether you have a small plot, big plot or what have you – just doing it outside, working in the garden, period,” Boyle said.
Wiregrass Master Gardener Devonne Ellis serves as the local liaison for Harvest for Health, making sure master gardeners submit documentation about their visits.
“It’s a rewarding experience,” Ellis said. “They’re able to help those who have gone through such a traumatic experience with cancer and all that goes with that.”