Communal gardening in aged-care homes

Project Eden spreads its wings

A version of this article first appeared in the Coffs Coast Advocate on Saturday 8th December, 2012

“I love to see things grow, and to eat what grows. We’ve eaten radishes and lettuces, that’s all we’ve got so far. But we’ve planted beetroots, shallots, garlic, lots of herbs, and lots of tomatoes – they’re beautiful.”

These are the words of Joan, a resident at St Joseph’s Aged Care residential facility, operated by Catholic Healthcare Limited, in Azalea Avenue, Coffs Harbour. Joan is one of a dozen residents participating in a new initiative, launched in September this year, to establish a raised vegie garden in one of the facility’s interior courtyards. It’s a collaboration between the staff and management of St Joseph’s, and local permaculturalist Steve McGrane, who is also the President of the Coffs Community Garden at Combine St.

Joan and a fellow gardener
Joan and a fellow gardener

“[All the members of the gardening group] had vegie gardens in our own homes. I’ve grown vegies since I was about 10, and I’m nearly 80 now. I loved growing cabbages, I always had a good crop of them”, Joan told me.

Once a week for the past 10 weeks, Steve has spent a couple of hours with the gardening group, working with them using his special layered method of raised bed edible garden design, planting the garden with 20 different species, discussing the techniques and practice of companion planting and pest control, making compost teas, and trialling seed germination and seed saving.

The project is very multifunctional. It’s highly educational, with Steve sharing his deep and growing knowledge of organic gardening principles and techniques with the group. When I visited, for example, he was putting together a compost mix, including some active compost and many worms. I learned that compost worms, once put in the soil, ‘can travel up to a kilometre or two each night. So if you don’t have compost, and your neighbour does, they’ll do and find it”, said Steve. And the big garden worms, he told us, can live for up to an amazing five years.

The St Joseph's garden group
The St Joseph’s garden group

They’re having a few minor issues with cabbage moths at St Joseph’s, which they’re treating with a homemade garlic and chilli spray. But the main method of pest control is Joan herself.

“Joan has been exceptionally vigilant in seeing what pests are around and taking them off. It goes back to the older processes – more observation”, said Steve.  “With Joan doing individual removal of pests here, that’s the perfect solution. It’s always important to have a good custodian of a garden, especially one like this”, he added.

The main pests, says Joan, are slugs. And how does she deal with them? Simple. “Drop them on the ground and stomp on them!”

After 10 weeks of intensive love and care, and Steve’s specially activated raised bed mix, the garden is thriving, and residents – both gardeners and non-gardeners – are enjoying its fruits.

“The residents and picking and eating the vegies”, said Meredith David, Leisure and Health Manager. “There’s no problem with them doing that, it’s out of our jurisdiction. To use the produce in the kitchen  – which we are doing as well – all of it has to be sterilised first.”

And the garden has brought wider benefits to St Joseph’s, in addition to the direct enjoyment and educational aspects of the gardening group, and the satisfaction of those nibbling on the lettuce leaves, tomatoes and basil.

“It’s been a very positive addition to our facility”, said Meredith. “It’s a real point of interest – even if someone isn’t actually a gardener, they can see that it’s happening, and they’re taking an interest in it.”

“We’ve got one person who used to sit out in the carpark to sun himself. Now he much rather sits in that courtyard, because he loves gardens. He can’t do gardening anymore, but he gets the benefits of enjoying this garden. It gives him a lot of pleasure”, Meredith said.

“It’s been great for the morale of the residents”, added Elaine, who has also been inspired to build her own no-dig vegie garden after being so impressed with what’s happened at St Joseph’s.

If permissions and funding are available, there are plans to expand the project next year, involving residents from the dementia wing and elsewhere in the facility. The first step will be a rockmelon rack, and there is talk of citrus tree plantings and some berries.

Steve sees this as a model that can be embraced by other aged care facilities and similar institutions. “It will only work provided the benefits can be realised, and the organisation supports it”, he said.