Working with the Garden of Sixty Five Roses
An Interview with Basil Natoli, Community Gardener

Peter Cock
Sylvie Shaw

We interviewed Basil Natoli where he works at Melbourne’s children’s hospital on the third floor where he has designed a small but poignant healing garden. The garden overlooks one of the city parks and it seems to extend out into the tree tops beyond. It is a garden which embraces the children and their families. It provides comfort for those confronting death but it also celebrates life through the changing cycles of nature. Here, sitting on top of a concrete slab are flowers, vegetables, fruit trees surrounded by colourful murals made by the children.

Basil also works on the public housing estates around inner city Melbourne where, ten years ago, he established a network of community gardens in the shadows of the towering high rise flats.

I’ve known for a long time that there is something very powerful about plants and the environment and what they can give people.

Some friends of mine found out that their three year old son was diagnosed with terrible cancer. After many months of hospital treatment, they were finally able to take him home to die. He was home for several weeks and I remember looking at this little boy slowly dying and I found it was the most painful thing that I could ever imagine being in touch with. So I wondered what I could do to help.

So I went along to the zoo and explained the situation to one of the butterfly keepers. I told him how this little boy had only about ten days to live and about much he loved butterflies. I asked the keeper if I could possibly borrow some butterflies to take home. He looked at me for the briefest of moments and then offered to help..

We made an arrangement that every morning for the next ten days or so I would come to the zoo at about 7.00 am to collect the butterflies. The butterfly keepers would swoop and catch maybe a dozen beautiful butterflies and put them in the box, and they would also pick a beautiful selection of buddleia flowers, otherwise known as the butterfly plant, to go with them. Then I would take them to Joshua's home nearby before I'd go to work. Joshua loved the butterflies and as they fluttered by his bedside, it brought the most extraordinary joy and delight into this tragic heart-breaking situation. Then, at the end of the day, we would gather up the butterflies and return them to the zoo.

After Joshua died I arranged to have his ashes sprinkled in the garden outside the butterfly house. It was a pretty powerful moment, and for me, it was extraordinarily comforting and supportive.

The Healing Garden

The Healing Garden at the children’s hospital project was initially started about five years ago with the support of one of Melbourne’s renowned gardeners, Kevin Heinze. But within a very short time, the engineers of the hospital closed it down because they were concerned about water and potting mix going down into the Intensive Care theatre below. There was a lot of protest and concern expressed by parents, the staff and the kids who wanted the garden back again, so the engineers sealed the roof and the garden was allowed to go ahead.

Not long after this time I approached the hospital as a teacher with the idea that I would be happy to do some volunteer work developing a horticultural program that would benefit the kids there. Within a few months they were able to appoint me. In the mornings I tend to work with the younger primary aged children who are sick and with the siblings of kids who have long term illnesses. These are mainly kids from the country who've come down to town with their parents and they stay here at the hospital so the family can remain intact.

By coming out here into the garden the kids have a chance to reconnect with nature. They can get their hands dirty, they can play with the water, they can squirt water at each other, they can pick off the caterpillars, and they can pick flowers to take back to their mum and their dad. The kids love to go on a caterpillar hunts and see how many they can catch and take back into the classroom. Or they can collect autumn leaves, or see how many scented plants they can find. We've also got a lot of edible berries and fruits and that's great for the kids to discover something they can pick and eat.

Sixty Five Roses

A lot of the children in the ward near the garden have cystic fibrosis. It’s a terminal illness which affects the pulmonary and respiratory and digestive system and it's a terrible disorder. In the past, kids would be lucky to get to their first or second birthday but now, with improved technology, a lot of kids are getting into the teen years.

The brother of one of these children who was suffering from cystic fibrosis was talking to a doctor about this mystery disease and he said, ‘My brother has sixty-five roses’. And the doctor said, ‘What on earth are you talking about?’ and the boy replied, ‘You know sixty five roses!’. In fact he was talking about cystic fibrosis. As a result of that story, the Cystic Fibrosis Association adopted the rose as a its symbol.

In the Healing Garden there are sixty five tubs of small red roses which have been planted and tended by the kids, either for themselves or for friends who have died from the disease. It's very touching and quite powerful when teenage kids get involved, and on a warm evening they will come out here and sit quietly with their friends. No matter how often I see this, I still struggle to understand how they can cope with what’s happening to them.

The garden is full of contrasts. There is a strong sense of life and death but at the same time, there is a sense of the spiritual. The more spiritual side of life seems to get battered within a hospital environment and the garden can be a counterbalance to the hospital’s high tech clinical environment. It is literally a breath of fresh air or a fresh gust of wind on a hot steamy day. It gives the kids a little glimmer of hope and escape from something that is terribly cold and sterile as well as painful and sad. Here they can get access to the basic elements of life, to water, fresh air, to soil, to the flowers, the fragrance, the butterflies, the caterpillars, and to the birds and who love to play in the bird bath. The very basic elements of life. It's more than just a garden. It's something much deeper than that. For the kids who are left behind, and for the families of the kids who have gone, it is a very very special place.

It gives me a real thrill to be able to inject some colour and life in what could be an unpleasant space. We've achieved something very simple and beautiful in such a small area that's enjoyed by the kids, the parents and the staff who come to sit here. It's a also a release for the staff at the hospital for here is one place where they can get back in touch with the world.

Recharging My Batteries

Every time I hear of another child who has died, especially the kids I have known, I feel like I have been struck with a hammer. I do. I feel very tender sometimes and then I think I’ve just got to keep on going because there are a lot more kids and families who can benefit from the garden. How can you not be sad and affected when kids you work with die?

To recharge my batteries in the face of this sadness I spend time in my garden at home. I find it a deeply special place where I can go and sit to take in the colours and the fragrances and the peace of the garden. It is a pretty powerful place. I also live close to the Yarra River and I often walk there in the mornings and I think that's also very healing. Living in the midst of the busy inner city, having to deal with all the things that can arise in the public housing estates and the hospital, I need an outlet somewhere to relax and unwind, and I guess the river and the big trees and the fresh air and the outdoors does something for me.

I feel strongly committed to the notion of creating community gardens on public housing estates. These estates can be terribly stressful and unfriendly places and the garden can give be a place of refuge. I believe that gardens are truly life giving and have the potential to provide food for the soul as well as food for the kitchen table.

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