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  • Randy Pench /

    Dawn Peterson, left, and Jan DuPree, center, talk with master gardener Tracy Lesperance this week as she gives gardening advice at the Foothill Farms Apartments. The apartment complex provides a community vegetable garden for residents.

  • Randy Pench /

    Galina Lisyuk shows off an armload of freshly picked veggies at the apartment complex. Residents of the 55-and-older complex get exercise working in the community garden while building friendships and harvesting healthy food.

  • Randy Pench /

    Residents, from left, G.J. Nunez, Lindie Melson, Bill Billington and Lucille Butler relax in the garden area at the Foothill Farms Apartments.

  • Randy Pench

    Lucille Butler relaxes nearby.

  • Randy Pench /

    Lindie Melson works in the garden at the Foothill Farms Apartments.

  • Randy Pench /

    For some of the senior residents, retirement has given them their first opportunity in years to work in a garden.

Seniors grow vegetables and their community

Published: Saturday, Aug. 3, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 4CALIFORNIA LIFE
Last Modified: Monday, Aug. 5, 2013 - 10:47 am

Regardless of the language spoken, tomatoes and squash bring them together.

Mixing Russian and Spanish with English, gardeners mingle after pulling weeds to swap vegetables along with advice. In new raised beds tucked behind their Foothill Farms apartment complex, these seniors work the soil and reap the benefits of fresh-picked vegetables.

"It's a wonderful community-building experience," said Julie Calderwood, service coordinator for Process Access, which helped create this 29-plot community garden. "It's a very healthy and positive experience."

As we become a nation of urban farmers, seniors have embraced vegetable gardening probably more than any other age group, making vegetable gardens an integral part of senior communities.

Opened in October, this 138-unit subsidized senior complex caters to a diverse community in Sacramento's Foothill Farms neighborhood.

Like many of the area's residents, Galina Lisyuk primarily speaks Russian. A native of Ukraine, the 70-year-old resident lovingly tends her tomatoes and cucumbers.

"I like gardening," she said, flashing a thumbs up. "I like the food – squash, green beans, tomatoes, cucumbers. I can grow them here."

Said Calderwood, "We've seen so many fantastic friendships form in this garden. People may speak different languages, but they like vegetables."

Bill Billington and G.J. Nunez met over tomatoes and hot peppers.

"Way back when I was a mere child, I had a garden," said Billington, 80. "During World War II, we all had victory gardens – that's what I still call them. The best thing is (growing) fresh-tasting tomatoes."

Said Nunez, "First and foremost, I like the camaraderie. Bill is the only guy around here that enjoys hot peppers, too. That's what brought us together."

"Nobody knew each other before we had this garden," said Lindie Melson. "Now, we're all friends."

Melson marvels at the different ways there are to grow vegetables.

"We all have our own methods," she said, "and they all work. It's wonderful. I've learned so much."

Jan DuPree and Lucille Butler never had much time – or room – to grow vegetables before now.

"I did it once, and I planted too much," DuPree recalled. "It was so much work, I didn't do it again. But this is fun."

Said Butler, "People just gravitate to the garden. Even if they don't have a plot, they come out to see what's growing and share some vegetables."

Vegetable gardening can serve as a catalyst for keeping seniors healthy and active.

"One of our main missions is to improve health and wellness," Calderwood said. "We're trying to minimize isolation."

Sacramento County master gardener Tracy Lesperance volunteers to help the seniors once a week.

"I call this therapeutic gardening," she said. "It keeps people active, maintains their manual dexterity. For people over 65, a large percentage are food-insecure. This gives them an added source of fresh vegetables, too."

Community gardens also are a popular part of more affluent senior communities.

Dozens of residents take part in the community garden at Four Seasons, a 463-home seniors community in El Dorado Hills. The community's developer included the 2-acre garden site as part of its master plan.

Everybody in the community shares in the bounty.

"We grow as much as we can so we can share," said resident Elsa Haines.

About 40 seniors actively tend individual plots. Many more check the tomatoes and herbs in a communal plot tended cooperatively by volunteers.

"And everybody checks out the community box," said Don Weaver, a retired USDA research scientist. "It's very popular."

In addition to vegetables, the Four Seasons garden has a small vineyard with merlot, cabernet franc and table grapes.

The garden – which also featuresornamental plantings – has become a popular spot to visit with grandchildren, volunteer Gerry Novotny said.

With his expertise, Weaver orchestrated a small orchard for the Four Seasons garden. Less than four years after planting, the 42 dwarf trees now bear bumper crops of peaches, plums, figs, citrus and other fruit that's shared at the community lodge.

"We'll put out 70 to 100 bags at a time, each with three or four pieces of fruit," Weaver said.

Charlotte Owendyk of Roseville, a retired state worker, recently turned her interest from roses and other ornamentals to food gardening and quickly became an urban farmer.

"I didn't grow a lot of vegetables when I was working – I didn't have time," she said. "I started with one bed of tomatoes. But this year, I added another raised bed and grew cantaloupe, watermelon, cucumbers, squash and beans. My husband reminds me, 'You know, there's only two of us.'

"My parents always grew vegetables," she said. "After I retired, I decided I'd do that, too."

Nationwide, vegetable and other food gardening continues to escalate.

Burpee, the seed catalog giant, reported record sales for the first half of 2013. Overall, the company's seed sales shot up more than 20 percent over last year, continuing a trend of similar annual growth since 2008.

"We haven't seen this boom since the back-to-the-land movement of the early '70s," said Burpee Chairman George Ball.

Many people are planting vegetable gardens for the first time, he noted. These newbies tend to fall into two groups: young families and people over age 50.

That's influenced Burpee's plant breeders in their efforts to develop new hybrids.

"Increasingly, we are attracting young married couples who want to control the food they put on their family dining table and are really angry about the high prices being charged at supermarkets," Ball said.

"We have expectant and new mothers asking us which varieties they can grow in their gardens to avoid processed baby food," he added. "As a result, we have started researching relatively bland-tasting, soft-fruited vegetables such as peas, squash, carrots and broccoli, in order to improve their nutritional values."

Meanwhile, boomers and seniors are making space in their gardens for more vegetables, Ball noted. They want the antioxidants.

"We call this 'growing younger,' " Ball said. "It is part of a new trend towards 'age-specific' gardening that has Burpee and other major players in the industry directing new varieties at specific age groups rather than the entire category of home gardeners."

Among Burpee's 2013 best-sellers are Healing Hands lettuce and Wild Mix kale, new varieties high in lutein, an antioxidant recommended to deter macular degeneration.

Eating – and growing – homegrown vegetables and fruit can help overall health, say many seniors. They're eating better, and the exercise has benefits, too.

"All the fresh vegetables I eat keeps me healthier," said Owendyk. "Gardening also is my personal exercise program. I know my doctor is very happy with me. He said, 'Whatever you're doing, keep it up.' "

Call The Bee's Debbie Arrington, (916) 321-1075. Follow her on Twitter @debarrington.

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