Califonia Bountiful

Coming of age

Nov./Dec. 2014 California Bountiful magazine

Garden therapy is healing for all

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If Barbara Fager's 86-year-old mother, Jean, is having a bad day, Barbara asks her if she wants to go outside to see the flowers.

Barbara Fager and her mother, Jean Fager, stroll through the gardens at Sunshine Care, an assisted-living, memory-care community. Barbara says nature makes her mom "happy and upbeat."

"She'll come alive," Barbara Fager said. "She loves to go up to that greenhouse and I do too."

Jean Fager is an Alzheimer's patient at Sunshine Care, a community of assisted-living, memory-care homes in Poway, just north of San Diego. She is among the residents there who benefit from garden therapy programs that range from an acclaimed Intergenerational Garden Club to growing organic produce and herbs.

Gardening and nature can provide reprieve for all ages, and studies show that for the elderly in particular there is an array of physical and emotional benefits, including improved quality of life, mobility and activeness. That's good news growing in the gardens of a nation with a burgeoning senior population: The number of people older than age 65 will double between 2000 and 2030, says the Administration on Aging.

Children Bethel Lutz, above, and Elijah Tan, below, join residents such as John Gharib and Norma Schoppa for weekly Intergenerational Garden Club activities

Garden therapy, more formally referred to as horticulture therapy, uses plants and horticultural activities "to improve social, educational and physical adjustment," according to the American Horticultural Therapy Association.

While the association notes that the concept dates back to ancient times, Sunshine Care has taken garden and nature therapy to new levels—using it as a way to bolster health and well-being and foster connections among all ages and stages of life.

From seed to senior
"It's a wonderful feeling to be able to have something like this and watch it grow," said CEO/President Sam Stelletello, speaking not of the bounty but of the programs that have resulted from his vision. He'd wanted to include growing plants as part of his 32-acre multi-building, ranch-style facility, and in 2007, had a 500-square-foot greenhouse cut out of the area's chaparral landscape.

From there, Sunshine Care's horticultural activities "just trailed along," he said, adding that they now have five gardens, two fruit orchards, a memorial rose garden, a pine forest and a dedicated Children's Garden. Hummingbirds, hawks, quail, song birds, butterflies, lizards and insects are common; the sights and sounds of nature are everywhere.

Garden activities connect generations, as Toby Fisher shows his watering can to Sunshine Care resident Hilda Eilman.

Roy Wilburn, horticulture manager, explained that the residents help plant and harvest throughout the year, and can see the activity from their rooms, stroll lush paths and visit the gardens and greenhouse.

"They almost all have memories of something agriculturally related," he said. "There's something in the back of their minds that really lights up about it as they garden."

Michelle Erickson experienced that firsthand with her mother, Joanne Weiser, a resident at Sunshine Care. Erickson described how her mother had participated in a garden program and then started talking about her parents being farmers, the crops they grew and the meals they made.

Michelle Erickson says that her mother Joanne Weiser talks about growing up on a farm as "a happy time."

"It was wonderful to hear and it took her back to a happy time," she said. "She's a gal who likes her makeup and her clothes, so she's more of a city gal. I never knew my mom as someone who grew up on a farm."

With the help of Erickson and other volunteers, residents and children, and under Wilburn's crop management, Sunshine Care grew and harvested 10 tons of organic produce last year—and it's on track for the same or more this year. They grew a ton each of squash, cauliflower, broccoli and lettuce, and about 6,000 pounds of tomatoes. The facility's menu is based on seasonal harvests and many recipes are shared at

"We try to get the residents as much involved as we can (in the gardens and greenhouse), but we also bring the horticultural programs to them," Wilburn said. This includes taking fresh vegetables to the different buildings and facilities, and also growing and delivering cut flowers.

Once a month, Garden Club participants of all ages gather in the greenhouse for a "ladybug release." Ladybugs are beneficial insects that help control garden pests.

Crossing the generation gap
The produce and flowers offer hands-on opportunities beyond gardening, such as food preparation and flower arranging, and all are part of Sunshine Care's Intergenerational Garden Club—another Stelletello initiative.

"It was just a natural thing to bring children in," he said.

Every Thursday morning, 10 to 15 children and their parents spend a few hours with residents: seeding, harvesting, weighing and tasting produce. They also build worm bins, release beneficial ladybugs, enjoy the natural environment and visit livestock at an onsite animal fair—whatever is on the Garden Club calendar.

"For our residents, this provides an opportunity to feel purposeful, that they are teaching a child a skill that's in their long-term memory," said Lisa Lipsey, community relations director and intergenerational liaison, involved since the program's inception. "I also see it as a lost art; most kids today don't really know where their food comes from."

Garden Club liaison Lisa Lipsey shows a beetle to resident Joyce Holmes and her husband, Rob, as young Sebastian Tan looks on.

Joyce Holmes, at Sunshine Care for two years, doesn't have children of her own and was at first a bit shy around the youngsters, said her husband Rob. But after a few months, she "seemed eager" and Rob Holmes now advocates for intergenerational garden programs at other senior living facilities and schools.

"I think it's the wave of the future," Holmes said.

"Getting kids to help our seniors, getting our seniors to show some guidance and wisdom to the youth, it's just one of those synergistic effects that's like boom, a real hit," Wilburn added.

Lipsey talks of how in military towns such as San Diego many children don't live near extended family. "We can give these kids some grandparent time and a place where they can volunteer as a family," she said. The children sometimes refer to the resident they're paired with as "grandma" or "grandpa."

Strolling from garden to greenhouse are, from left, Josef Ciurzynski, resident Ginger Arthur, Ally Lowell and Emme Helvey.

"It's a very symbiotic relationship with the children because their skill levels are identically matched up yet they're so far apart in age, so it just works fabulously, constantly," Stelletello said. "To have kids coming to the greenhouse and learning how to put seeds in the ground, weed and harvest: It's been a spectacular thing."

Caring about the community
Another of Sunshine Care's programs began in 2010, when Stelletello donated the use of land for a community garden. It flourished—and expanded to what are now three community gardens and a 32-tree orchard.

Horticulture manager Roy Wilburn, left, manages the facility's gardens, which resulted from CEO/President Sam Stelletello's vision.

They supply fresh fruits and vegetables to those in need through the local Backyard Produce program. The gardens are maintained by volunteers, while Sunshine Care supplies the land, water and Wilburn's and Lipsey's horticultural and fundraising expertise, respectively.

The facility also holds free monthly gardening workshops for the community and residents; opens its garden gates to scout troops, schoolchildren and mommy-and-me groups; and has helped launch eight gardens in nearby schools, churches and low-income housing projects.

Just a seed of an idea has blossomed into Sunshine Care growing an abundance of nutritious fresh food, implementing healthful activities and creating community connections for young and old alike.

Resident Bill Ossenmacher with a display of the vegetables grown in the gardens at Sunshine Care.

Barbara Fager said of her mother, "Sometimes she's down in the well and all of a sudden you feel that she comes back to normal … you can see it in her eyes and have a connection. Nature does that for her."

Joyce Mansfield

Garden advice from 'Farmer Roy'

Sunshine Care residents, volunteers, children and staff, as well as people across the community at large, call him Farmer Roy—and for good reason. Horticulture Manager Roy Wilburn grows literally tons of produce, herbs and flowers every year in garden plots and a small greenhouse. He willingly shares his expertise and recognizes the many health benefits we gain from spending time in the garden.

Here are a few tips from Farmer Roy:

"Farmer Roy" Wilburn shares his knowledge and horticultural expertise with children as well as residents, volunteers and members of the community.

  • Use drip irrigation and a timer (solar- and battery-operated ones are easy to install) to conserve and keep watering on schedule.
  • Grow a kid-friendly garden to inspire younger generations to become gardeners of the future. Some favorites among youngsters are cherry tomatoes, snap peas, snow peas and carrots.
  • Fertilize your deciduous fruit trees four times a year (February, May, August and October) and one additional time after fruit has been harvested. Feed the tree and it will feed you!
  • Grow Stevia rebaudiana as a natural, low-glycemic alternative to sugar and artificial sweeteners. You can dry it to make your own green powder or a liquid stevia extract.
  • Don't let your basil flower. Constant pruning is required to encourage new growth, full of essential oils. Cut above the branching junctions on the stem and use high-nitrogen fertilizer. Keep the soil moist but not overwatered.
  • Enjoy the best flavor of your fruits and vegetables by harvesting at the peak of ripeness.


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