Garden of memories
Warm touch of garden soil provides vivid connection to the past and present
By: Susan Jones
| Posted: Saturday, Aug 18, 2012 06:00 am
You might think that after 80-plus years of living, pulling weeds might get a bit tiresome.
Yet for many River Ridge Seniors Community residents, pulling weeds is not just a way to beautify their small garden plots. In summer, it’s their raison d’etre.
River Ridge is an assisted-living facility and most residents need some help with day-to-day living.
Some folks have mobility issues, while others have problems with their vision. Many of these seniors have very serious memory problems. Nonetheless, despite their various frailties, two or three days per week they tend to the flowers and vegetables they planted in the spring. In some magical way they delve into their old selves and unlock the knowledge that they’ve gleaned from a lifetime of harvests.
For many, the gardening hobby is addictive and they go back again and again to check on the plants or to make sure no more weeds have grown. When there are sudden thunderstorms, they worry about how the heavy rain will affect their flowers. Soon after the storms have passed, they go straight out to prop up the plants.
“We can’t stop them from going out in the garden. Some of them go there every evening,” said River Ridge’s creative expression co-ordinator Nicole Collyer.
The home’s gardening initiative began a few years ago when some residents helped tend the raised flowerbeds by the patio doors.
“It gave them pride of ownership and helped them to make this their home,” Collyer said. “They like their home to look beautiful.”
The flower gardening idea was so successful that last year the garden was expanded and herbs were planted. Kitchen staff members now use the various herbs in their cooking. The gardeners take pleasure in the sprigs of mint or parsley that decorate their plates or enhance the flavour of their meals.
“Smell this! That’s chocolate mint! They garnish our desserts with it. See this! It’s parsley. They use fresh parsley in our soup. We also grow lemon thyme and basil,” said resident Lil Campbell, as she rubbed the fragrant herbs between her fingers.
Now, in addition to the flower and herb gardens near the home’s main back patio, there is also a memory lane flowerbed. A third garden was added this year when a handful of residents took a raised plot to grow vegetables at the St. Albert Parish Heritage Garden on Mission Hill.
Until recently many of the home’s seniors were strangers to each other. Gardening is a natural way for the residents to talk to each other as well as to reminisce.
“I used to have a garden that was 75 feet long when I lived on the farm. I had two big gardens. I grew so many potatoes one year I filled 29 five-gallon pails,” said Campbell.
Together Campbell and Therese Riopel recalled the big zucchinis they once grew and the large quantities of rhubarb and raspberries that required canning and pie baking. They recalled making pickles and compared their old recipes.
“I miss gardening. That’s why I like to be out here with the flowers,” said Campbell.
Riopel recalled the large flowerbed she used to look after in Morinville.
“You should see the pictures of my flowers,” she said, somewhat wistfully.
Riopel walks over to the Heritage Garden several times a week to tend the vegetables. She is constantly curious about how the plants are growing, and group gardening sessions provide a way for her to share a lifetime of knowledge.
“We should be thinning these,” Riopel said as she also explained that the beet greens would be good to eat.
“We just need a little vinegar and some butter,” she told Collyer.
Campbell sticks closer to River Ridge where she likes to tend the patio flowers. She needs a walker to keep her balance, but that doesn’t stop her from leaning over the planter to yank out a weed. She uses a sharp trowel to dig around the petunias and as she works she also shares her expertise about how to grow better flowers.
“The wind and rain knocked the living heck out of the flowers,” she said. “When it dries out I’ll take my little hoe and loosen the soil. I like the soil to be loose,” she said.
Getting the nine-foot square box ready at the Heritage Garden required several hours of preparation.
Many of the seniors no longer remember that in May they tilled the soil or planted the flowers. It’s almost as if these seniors are living what everyone is always told they must do. These gardeners seize the day and they live in the moment. It doesn’t matter who planted the flowers. If pulling weeds is the day’s task then it’s that present task that is important to them.
As the gardeners surveyed their tiny rows of beets, onions and sunflowers, they couldn’t help but express their sense of accomplishment.
“Look how thickly the beets are growing,” said a proud Doreen Chisholm.
Getting to the garden itself means the seniors must walk about a block and a half and the last bit of the walk is along a rough path. Collyer resists the urge to help and when it’s time for harvesting, she plans to get the gardeners to carry the vegetables on bags that are hooked over the handlebars on their walkers.
“I’ve learned that the more risk they take, the less likely they are to fall. They want to be independent and this helps them understand their own strength and self-sufficiency,” said Collyer, adding that she has learned a great deal from the gardening seniors.
“This is a way for them to teach me. I’ve learned what to plant and when to harvest the vegetables. I’ve watched them beautify their garden,” she said, adding that the seniors also share their history with her.
“The seniors have a sense of pride with this place and it’s tied to the community and tied to the church,” she said.
Indeed, as he thinned the vegetables, Harold Cassidy could not help but remember other summer pastimes and old friends.
“We used to play baseball here. The Grey Nuns used to have a baseball diamond here,” he said.
For Rose Horvath, however, it’s the warmth of the soil and the smell of the blossoms in the memory lane plot that help her to recall past skills. She has difficulty with her memory but somehow the beautiful flowers she tends are a link to the past. She has no difficulty instructing a reporter about where the weeds are and how to pull them.
“Get your fingers right down to the soil and feel where to pull. You must get the whole root or the weed will come back,” she said.
The weeds and the long-held memory of her fingers brought a story to mind for this senior.
“I grew up in a garden. When I was a little girl, I was in the garden all the time so I just love to look after the flowers,” she said.
“This garden gives her purpose,” Collyer said. “She knows when it needs to be watered. This garden relaxes her.”