Cancer patients who have never tasted a fresh zucchini, eggplant or tomato can try one or all three through a garden planted at Franciscan St. Francis’ cancer center.

When patients first start chemotherapy or radiation treatment for cancer, they meet with a member of the cancer center dietitian team. The dietitians go over what foods will be best to eat, how to maintain energy during treatment and an overall nutrition plan to keep them healthy, dietitian Gretchen Heidenreich said.

Two years ago, Heidenreich noticed that nearly every patient was not getting enough servings of fruits and vegetables, she said. Ideally, cancer patients should be eating five servings per day, but some didn’t know what one serving looked like, she said.

“After seeing that so many of them haven’t been getting enough, I wanted to increase their intake,” Heidenreich said.

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She decided to start a garden to plant fruits, vegetables and herbs and leave what was harvested in the lobby for patients to take. If someone was unlikely to pick up a vegetable at the store, she thought that if they saw a tomato or cucumber for free, they would be more likely to take it, Heidenreich said.

Heidenreich asked Franciscan St. Francis employees to donate extra seeds, soil, tomato cages and planters to create the garden in 2013.

“The ground was really hard so it took a lot of work to get it filled,” Heidenreich said.

The donations came pouring in, and herbs, sunflower seeds, tomatoes, onions, zucchini, cucumbers, eggplant and potatoes have all become part of their garden, Heidenreich said.

Local nurseries, including Dammann’s Lawn and Garden and Heidenreich Greenhouse and Garden Center, donated tomato plants, raspberries and grapes for the garden, Heidenreich said. Employees made signs, trellises and a bench for the garden, Heidenreich said. Security guards include it in their rounds to make sure no one is messing up the soil or the plants, she said.

The idea started two years ago has now grown into a 30-foot-by-30-foot garden. Employees weed and water the garden on a daily basis in the summer, Heidenreich said. This summer, they barely needed to water the garden at all for June and July, with all the heavy rain that hit central Indiana, she said.

Employees bring in bags of vegetables, fruits and herbs that have grown in the garden and put them in the lobby for patients and visitors to take. Every day a new bag is brought in, it is empty by the end of the day, Heidenreich said. Patients will use them in recipes or try them for the first time in dips or as a snack, she said.

“People just love it. I had one person say it reminded her of her grandma,” Heidenreich said.