At first glance, the Robert Sinclair Scott Vegetable Garden, tucked up against the banks of the Arroyo Corte Madera del Presidio creek in southern Marin County, looks like any tidy, well-maintained community garden. Inside the garden gate however, the diligent gardeners working amongst the spindly cosmos, inky delphinium, sturdy kale, and near-dry late season sunflowers, are all over the age of 75.
That's because Robert Sinclair Scott Vegetable Garden is located at The Redwoods Retirement Community, an independent living, assisted living, and skilled nursing facility (including HUD Section 8 apartments), in downtown Mill Valley. The Redwoods is one of a growing number of facilities, in Marin County and throughout the state, designed for older adults and aimed at supporting Californians through the aging process.
According to state projections, in ten years, 21 percent of the California's adult population will be over the age of 65. As our state population ages, and as sites like The Redwoods demonstrate, Californians will need to build and sustain healthy living environments for our seniors. In Marin County, gardens are part of the plan.
On the morning of Sept. 17, UC Cooperative Extension (UCCE) staff, academics, and UC Master Gardener volunteers gathered with Marin County Health and Human Services employees in San Rafael to tour four gardens located at adult residences throughout the region. Organized by UCCE Marin's School and Community Gardens Coordinator, Lauren Klein, the tour highlighted successful garden projects for older adults, while identifying challenges related to garden design and accessibility.
Mackey Terrace, an affordable housing site for seniors, is home to a garden of nine waist-high raised beds including one ADA-compliant bed accessible by wheelchair. Mackey Terrace gardeners adopt their own beds or choose to share beds with other residents, growing food and flowers of their choosing. During our visit, one resident selected a basketball-sized watermelon she jokingly named “the papa” of her plot, sliced it open and served each tour attendee a bright pink juicy slice. Another resident showed off her impressive bed of zinnias and cosmos. Still another noted that she inter-planted nopales (or cactus) with jade and pumpkin. Several of the Mackey Terrace residents are longtime gardeners with knowledge about plant care and soil. “Before I moved here, the thing I missed most was my garden … Now I grow what I want … as long as the gophers let me!” said one enthusiastic gardener.
At Golden Hinde, a Marin Housing Authority affordable housing site, tour attendees were led behind the recreation room to a small garden space, teeming with large not-quite-ripe tomatoes. Sarah, a resident leading the tour, shared that everything she knew about caring for plants came from fellow resident and gardener, Charlie. At this small site, UC Master Gardener volunteers dispense advice about saving lettuce seed and watering regimes for tomatoes - emphasizing that in gardening, as in life, there are many paths and learning is constant.
Bennett House, a Mercy Housing-run affordable housing facility, is home to the largest garden on the Marin tour. Nestled into a hillside in Fairfax, the Bennett House garden boasts pear, peach, and apple trees along with a dozen raised beds overflowing with nasturtium, tomatoes, and melons. Residents adopt their own beds, but also contribute seeds and labor to a community plot nearest the garden shed. Even outside of the garden, Bennett House has a strong focus on food access, serving as a drop-off point for organizations such as the Food Bank of San Francisco and Marin and ExtraFood.org. On food drop-off days, fruits gleaned from the on-site garden are available for residents to collect. During the tour, UCCE staff and volunteers, standing on tiptoes and on the corners of raised beds, harvested Bartlett pears.
The final stop of the tour, the Robert Sinclair Scott Vegetable Garden is a 20-year old community garden on the property of an older adult facility and adjacent to Audubon open space. Residents and community members are welcomed into the garden seven days a week. Garden Activities Coordinator, Kurt Ellison, and garden ambassadors and volunteers from the local community, support residents as they seed, weed, and harvest. Ellison has designed the garden and his activities to optimize inclusion of his aging residents. Garden instructions are posted daily, indicating what tasks need doing. Garden beds are labeled. Garden activities are advertised in large, easily legible fonts. Beds are spaced appropriately to allow wheelchair and walker access. The garden's most popular activity is its u-pick flower bed, where residents can create bouquets of seasonal flowers to bring back to their rooms or apartments.
While the project of garden accessibility for older adults in the state of California is still very much in progress, UCCE Marin's tour of adult residence gardens demonstrates that interest in home horticulture persists, even when home changes, and that with the proper support gardening can be an activity for any age.
To learn more about the UC Master Gardener Program in Marin County and UCCE Marin's work to support school and community gardens, visit: http://marinmg.ucanr.edu/Community_Service_Projects/Marin_Community_Gardens/.
The tour was followed by the Marin Food Policy Council—a monthly meeting of food systems stakeholders working to support policies that expand equitable access to local and healthy food through community and school gardens, urban agriculture, and other means.
The tour was funded by a collaborative grant through the Marin Community Foundation to improve healthy eating and active living for older adults in Marin County. The tour built on UCCE Marin's ongoing work to support the sharing of best practices across community gardens, elevate public awareness of the benefits of community gardening, and expand municipal policies that are supportive of community gardens. As part of her program, Klein has also created an interactive map of community gardens in Marin County available here and published a booklet featuring garden highlights, A Garden for Everyone: Tales of Marin's Community Gardens.
Big appreciation to all of the staff and residents of Mackey Terrace, Golden Hinde, Bennet House, and The Redwoods for opening up their gardens and for sharing their harvest. Gratitude to UCCE Marin staff and academics including School and Community Gardens Program Coordinator, Lauren Klein, Food Systems Advisor, Julia Van Soelen Kim, and Communications Specialist, Bonnie Nielsen for organizing the event. Special appreciation to two tour attendees, UC Master Gardener Program of Marin County volunteers, Sandy T. Parry and Barbara Searles, for sharing their garden knowledge and connecting residents to UC horticulture resources.