By Linda Walsh
Alyson Thal, a traditionally trained family doctor who became disillusioned with the present healthcare delivery system, now incorporates a vegetable garden with her practice and a community health perspective. It is nearly impossible to separate the history of a particular land from the history of the people who live on it and the same is true of the small plot of land on Corrales Road under Thal’s stewardship. Thal, the physician who started Corrales Family Practice at 3841 Corrales Road, spent much of her early childhood on a small family farm in Stanley, Kansas, where her father was professor of surgery at the University of Kansas Medical School. There she learned to ride horses and work cattle and watched her mother tend a beautiful and productive garden.
Her mother was also a gourmet cook so Thal got to experience the beauty of the garden and the direct fruits of her mother’s efforts. When the family moved from Kansas to a large ranch in Mora, in northeastern New Mexico, Thal went from riding English to western, from jumping fences to rodeo team roping. She also gained a deep appreciation of the role of nature in everyday life, and an awareness of how people must adapt to an ever-changing environment. She learned that gardening and agriculture demanded flexibility and patience. It was a lesson she applied to many aspects of her life as a physician and mother of six. In 1999 Thal moved to Corrales to start the Village Doctors with another physician. She had spent 13 years working in most of the healthcare systems as a frontline doctor, and was ready to quit “big city medicine.” She wanted more time with each patient for “an opportunity to get back to the essence of the doctor/patient relationship.”
As healthcare in traditional medical practices eroded due to over-crowding, higher costs, and especially less time to see patients, Thal looked for an opportunity to take more control of how she practiced medicine. Three years after moving to Corrales, Thal purchased the three-acre property on Corrales Road that had been headquarters for a construction company,and began the work of transforming it into a place of healing. Rehabilitating the original building to a functioning clinic was a huge undertaking. The ancient plumbing had to be redone, the rooms rearranged to accommodate patients and staff; the whole building needed to be made comfortable, home-like and welcoming. Once the clinic was complete she started work on the courtyard “because I want people to feel joy, I want them to feel happy, I want them to be awed when they see the beauty of nature.”
Thal originally envisioned the front acre of the property as a new kind of clinic, one that converted the idea of a waiting room into an interactive learning center, acknowledging that “life is too short to wait.” She envisioned a circular room with a garden in the center. Her ultimate goal was a home for the best of western and alternative medicine, integrating traditional and non-traditional in a beautiful space. As so often happens with great plans, life intervenes. When Thal was embezzled in 2008, the dream of building a new clinic had to be abandoned and a new one created for her practice and the front acre. The land was always part of her mission to deliver a more holistic form of healthcare. Knowing full well that “health” is multifaceted and that it includes social, emotional, physical and intellectual needs, her vision was multi-purposed. She saw the garden as an answer to help her patients who at times suffered from isolation and depression, sought community or needed an activity that could contribute to their health.
A garden would also rehabilitate the land. The next question was how to bring her idea to fruition. Fate intervened when L.D. Anderson, a long-term patient and Master Gardener, octogenarian and enthusiastic volunteer, entered the scene. When Thal asked him what his secret was to maintaining such a positive attitude and energetic life, he responded gardening and giving back. In 2012 at an open house for the conversion of her traditional practice to her partnership with the management company MDVIP, and with Anderson at the sign-in table, the Corrales Family Practice Garden enlisted its first volunteers. Though several added their names to the list at that event, only three were ready to roll up their sleeves and work in the dirt. They were Edy Burtis, Linda Ozier and Cindy Harper.
Along with Anderson as supervisor and consultant-Master Gardener, Edy Burtis had the most experience. Linda Ozier and Cindy Harper came with a desire to learn and a willingness to pitch in on many levels. The garden started out as a small corner of the current one third acre, and the work was hard. The early days of the garden presented many obstacles and the small band of volunteers learned by trial and error. One of the biggest needs was to maintain a steady flow of water. Thal enlisted the help of her family, imbued with ranch and farm experience, to install a well and later till the soil. The arid earth gradually relinquished the deep tap-rooted weeds and river rocks. It absorbed the irrigated water and soil amendments as well as all the energy and creativity the volunteers could bring.
According to Richard Zabell, an early volunteer in the garden, the three essential ingredients to a successful garden are good soil, water and volunteers. An engineer by training, Zabell took command of the watering system. With the help of Jim Koontz, this included laying tubing and T-tape, maintaining the well, adding a timer and staying on top of the many ruptures, leaks and frustrations an irrigation system can bestow. Koontz, rancher and long-time resident of Corrales, besides his volunteer work in the garden, shares his ranching experience and equipment tilling and hauling in organic matter and hauling out everything that can’t be composted.
Financing for a second well pump came in a grant from MDVIP, with which Thal had partnered after her practice was embezzled. It has allowed her the time to develop her doctor/patient collaborations so critical to effective healthcare. It has also given her the opportunity to develop additional avenues to enhance her patients’ health. MDVIP has continued to give financial support to the garden every year since that first request to replace the pump. The number of volunteers has grown as the garden has expanded from the first corner plot in 2013 to the current third-acre plus. Envisioned at first as a place for patients to enjoy the benefits of healthy fresh food, social activity and all the spirit-enhancing benefits that digging in the dirt and producing fresh food can bring, the volunteer group also needed to grow. In 2018 the Sandoval Extension Master Gardeners approved the garden for Master Gardener volunteer activities. Not only do the Master Gardeners help with the garden, but the garden gives the Master Gardeners an opportunity to fulfil their mission of teaching others how to garden sustainably. Thal also continues to prescribe the garden to her patients; volunteers from the Corrales community are welcome.
The garden is a thing of beauty during the growing season. In early spring the pollinator bed between the small orchard and field starts to show signs of life. Volunteers begin to sow rows of onions, beets, radish, bok choy and carrots. By late spring the first bags of food are being carried to St. Felix Pantry and the warm weather crops of summer squash, zucchini and cucumbers are sown. The seedlings of eggplant and okra are transplanted. By early summer the garden is going full steam. Rows of young tomato plants in large covered cages and peppers dominate the landscape. The tomatoes and peppers have been nurtured from seed to viable young plants by Seed2Need under the expert direction of Penny Davis and her small army of dedicated helpers. In late summer volunteers harvest the tomatoes, squash, cabbage, broccoli, cucumbers, okra and the last of the eggplant, and peppers and melons. As the harvest dwindles in early fall, the work of cleaning up the field begins. Toward the end of the harvesting season, Thal throws a party to thank all those who have contributed to her practice and the garden. She invites her patients and their families, the gardeners and friends in the community. They share music and dancing, food and awards, garden tours, produce to take home and an enhanced sense of community.
Thal is fond of saying that what gives her hope, what contributes to her life as a sole practitioner in Corrales, is seeing her patients, friends and community members in the garden and watching it bloom every year. Since Corrales was established as a farming community, perhaps seeing the tradition of small plot farming on the Corrales Family Practice garden gives joy to others as well. The garden that began as vacant dirt eventually attracted others who saw the potential in it: a blank slate upon which to create something beautiful, an opportunity to give back to the community and also, inevitably, an outlet to help heal from the sorrows brought on by sudden loss, for the loss of purpose brought on by retirement, for a need to put active and inactive minds and bodies to work and to learning, for the need to create something both beautiful and productive. No one could have foreseen the needs this community garden would help fulfill in a time of loss and hardship brought on by the COVID-19. While keeping to the rules of distancing and masking, the garden not only donated over 3,000 pounds of food to St. Felix Pantry, but became a rare place of social contact, of work outside the confines of quarantine and of gratitude for the opportunity to contribute to the health of others. The garden also proved that medicine does not need to be confined to a medical office, pharmaceutical option or facility or to one person at a time. A good community garden can be good medicine for individuals and the community.