Gardening plays a huge role in mental health for surgeon
by Heather Raithby Doyle
Our member’s profile this month features Dr. Saundra Hewitt, a veterinary orthopedic
surgeon who specializes in dogs’ knees. When it comes to operating and giving dogs a
chance for a healthy, active life, Saundra is, dare we say, the ‘bee’s knees’?
Thanks to her grandparents’ influence, Saundra is also an exceptional, lifelong gardener. Her property in Port Credit, close to Lake Ontario, features exuberant gardens in what once “looked like a soccer field”, a wildlife pond, cold frames, and a constant flitting of birds. Still, Saundra says she had a “mind-flip” about a year ago after she attended a talk about native plants by Blooming Boulevard’s Jeanne McRight at a local garden club. “How is it possible I have been gardening my life and I don’t know any of this?” she says.
This new perspective on native plants is a welcome challenge to someone who loves to learn.
Saundra used to scour the gardening magazines for the latest and greatest plants but
now that has lost it’s lustre since none of them are ever native. She gave up her subscriptions.
This new perspective on native plants is a welcome challenge to someone who loves to learn. Saundra has grown her own plants from seeds for years, meticulously documenting the humidity, sprout rate, date sown, temperature and more on spreadsheets: “I love a good experiment.” She now volunteers to stratify native plant seeds with Blooming Boulevards, and grows plants for the plant sale. She is also starting to work on an idea she shared with Blooming Boulevards; the creation of The Bug Project, a photographic database of insects, butterflies, bees and more, that each native plant featured on the website supports.
In her busy life running her own veterinary clinic, she finds the operating room and the
garden are balms against life’s stresses. “I am happiest on this planet when I’m in the OR… it’s because all of the noise goes away, and it’s almost like meditating. I'm doing one thing and all my concentration has to be on that because I have to do the best job I can. I can’t think of anything else at the moment. It’s so peaceful. When you finish the surgery all the chaos of the world dumps in.” To be honest, says Saundra, gardening is really important to her mental health. “In January it’s so depressing and dark, but I get up and go and check on my plants, see what has sprouted, how they are doing….I’m not entirely sure I would be here without gardening.”
Saundra sees her garden as a metaphor for life; some plants do well, some poorly. For
example, one year her backyard was overrun with pumpkins, the next year they didn’t
grow at all. Her garden is now pivoting to plants that are more useful to insect life. She recently planted two paw paw trees, a willow, serviceberry, and hopes to plant two oaks and a redbud this year. The garden in the front yard is expanding to make more room for native plants. Whereas once she wanted to grow beautiful flowers, “right now I feel this overwhelming responsibility. I have the land, it’s my responsibility to use it for nature,” she says. By growing hardy natives, vegetables to feed herself throughout the year, and avoiding packaged products that end up in landfill, Saundra says “I try to make my (ecological) footprint as small as possible.” She reuses garden pots until they are paper thin, and picks up garbage when out for a walk with her dog Freya. She doesn’t use pesticides, and waters infrequently.
I thought my backyard was brilliant for wildlife, I thought it was perfect. Then what I did last summer was look at plants like the boneset that has hundreds of insects in it, and my beautiful Pow Wow Wild Berry echinacea has zero in it. It’s not like you can argue my fancy cultivar is good, it’s just pretty.
Saundra jokes she joined Blooming Boulevards so she could get early access to the plant sale. So much has changed in a year. She credits this journey to the group: "Had I not seen Jeanne talk I would have carried on completely ignorant. I thought my backyard was brilliant for wildlife, I thought it was perfect. Then what I did last summer was look at plants like the boneset that has hundreds of insects in it, and my beautiful Pow Wow Wild Berry echinacea has zero in it. It’s not like you can argue my fancy cultivar is good, it’s just pretty. Had I not watched [Jeanne’s] talk I wouldn’t know differently.”
She would love to see native plants and insects be part of the school curriculum, teaching the next generation to appreciate the ecosystem. “Blooming Boulevards is doing spectacular things, putting these gardens out front and changing people’s ideas.”