Gardening a passion for seniors

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Food just tastes better if it's from the garden.

Besides, it's nice to work outside and get your hands in the dirt.

That's the thinking of nine women who garden plots at Sunset Meadows I.

"It might not be as big or as good-looking as the food in stores, but if you make it yourself, it's better," said gardener Cecila Bergmann, 83. "I like to do things with my hands; with plants you do that."

Indeed, the gardens behind the senior citizen complex are thriving. In the sectioned off land that has served as the gardening area for the past five years, tomatoes grow alongside corn and peas. Squash plants flourish, some revealing the first signs of the yellow vegetable, while green sweet peppers begin to plump under the hot summer sun.

In the center of it all, Marvelous Mary, the garden's watchful scarecrow, keeps a silent watch on the comings and goings of people and animals.

For gardener Mary Jane Lindley, gardening has always been equated with survival. The oldest of 10 siblings, Lindley, 76, was often in charge of providing food for the table, much of which came from the garden. What wasn't immediately consumed was canned to last through the cold winter months.

Lindley chooses to care for the ground's flower gardens, instead of growing food. Even after getting married, Lindley only opted to grow a garden for one year.

"Back then, everybody had a garden," Lindley said about her childhood years on a farm. "You couldn't always get to the store. It was a way to save money. Growing up on a farm, money wasn't too plentiful."

Other senior gardeners also shared gardening memories, many citing years of experience. At the complex, they'll tend a friend's plot who is sick or on vacation. They keep a keen eye tuned to each other's successes and mistakes, sometimes trying new fruits and veggies such as brussel sprouts and cantaloupe. Working with the clay-like soil and the area's shortened growing season is a challenge, the gardeners admit. But those kinds of obstacles aren't apparent to the casual observer strolling past the garden's chin-high corn or overflowing baskets of petunias.

"I think we're having more people comment on how pretty the gardens are," said Maxine DeLong.

Gardening brings the women a sense of pride and "something to do," she added. When she has an abundant crop, DeLong, 74, shares the spoils with those around her.

The gardens, which residents can view prominently from the complex's main eating and gathering area, have had a way of building community among residents. For the second year, residents are encouraged to dream up a name for the garden's scarecrow. Earl Davis submitted the winning name of Marvelous Mary.

Mary, in her brightly colored fruit print shirt and purple socks, replaced last year's scarecrow, Effie.

Sunset residents who aren't gardeners keep the green plots close to their hearts. When deer are spotted among the plants, residents try to scare them away by banging pots and pans or hollering out their windows.

Everyone felt the loss a couple years ago when the gardens were vandalized. Some gardeners woke up one morning to find their fruits and vegetables destroyed.

Evidently, some youths had taken watermelons and smashed them in the parking lot across the street.

"I was heartbroken," DeLong said.

Gardener Judy Wheeler, 66, said she learns through the others' experience.

This year, she started her plants from seed so her plants seem to be growing slower than those of her peers.

During conversations, gardeners learn some of the tricks of the trade. Dee Phillips, 69, adds a about a half cup of brewed tea to a gallon of water to quench plants. Mary Jane Lindley swears by Miracle Gro for fabulous flowers.

"People think we can't do anything," DeLong. "(But gardening) is something old people can do."

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