At the end of May, a full-size tractor-trailer delivered 13 heavy, hemlock garden beds to two senior housing facilities at the Brewer Housing Authority. About a dozen residents of Chamberlain Place and The Heritage had agreed to take part in a University of Maine research project aimed at determining whether they could grow a meaningful amount of fresh produce in the raised beds and whether the physical activity, the mental stimulation and the ready availability of vegetables would lead to an improvement in their diets and overall well-being.
Last Thursday morning, the answer to these questions appeared to be a resounding “yes.”
Rows of neatly tended beds overflowed with healthy greens — chard, lettuce, kale, spinach and beet greens. The pungent aromas of basil, tarragon, rosemary and other herbs rose in the heat of the morning sun. Leafy tomato plants planted in buckets were busily setting fruit.
“It’s been so nice to go out and get some beets from my garden, and bring them in and wash them off in my sink and cook them and eat them,” said 80-year-old Joan Greenlaw, a native of Baileyville.
Greenlaw is one of about a dozen seniors at the housing authority who took part in the summer-long study, which was designed and organized by UMaine assistant professor of nursing Kelley Strout.
Funded with about $7,000 from the University of Maine Aging Initiative, with additional support from Bangor Greendrinks, the project provided seniors, many of whom are lifelong gardeners, with the opportunity to get their hands back in the dirt.
And, since fresh produce can be expensive to buy and hard to store, Strout said, it makes sense to give people the materials they need to grow healthy vegetables for their own diets.
“I’ve always had a garden, ever since I was young,” said 78-year-old Ellen Torrey, who hails from Portland. “I’ve already picked almost all of my lettuce and kale. I had enough to share it with other people in my building.”
Roger Hanson, 82, from New Sweden is partial to beet greens.
“I’m not really fond of kale,” he said. “Maybe I didn’t cook it right. But I’ve been eating a lot of beet greens.”
Hanson said he had so much produce he was able to share it with neighbors, friends at church and a local food pantry.
All participants took part last spring in a baseline assessment of their health status, emotional and cognitive functions, and nutritional intake, conducted by students from the nursing and nutrition programs at UMaine.
As the growing season wraps up, Strout said, the gardeners will update their information, allowing the researchers to measure the impact of the project. She acknowledged that the three-month trial was unlikely to yield significant data, but that over time, she expects to see measurable improvements in diet, health and physical activity.
Strout has applied for external funding to continue and expand the garden project, with a long-term goal of introducing raised-bed gardening to seniors across the state.
While it’s unclear whether the garden project in Brewer will continue as a formal research study, Strout intends to include it as part of an ongoing partnership between the Brewer Housing Authority and the UMaine nursing program, which uses the sites to provide students with clinical experience.
But, she said, the real success of the program also can be gauged by the evident pleasure the participants have taken in having a garden to tend, the outdoor physical activity involved and the social interactions they enjoyed as they got to know each other.
“So much of their time is typically tied up with doctors appointments and figuring out transportation,” she said. “But this project has brought them together in a shared activity, and they’ve made friends with each other.”
Gardening expertise for the project was provided by John Jemison of the UMaine Cooperative Extension Service. He and Strout visited the senior gardens every week to provide tips and recipes and to answer questions.
“This is a wonderful project,” Jemison said. “I have really enjoyed working with these people and getting to know them.”
Plus, he said, “I learned that one of these beds can support more people than I thought.”
Next year, Jemison added, he hopes to introduce earthworms into the rich mix of soils in the beds to aerate and fertilize them.
A wrap-up meeting was held on a recent Thursday where the study participants reviewed and evaluated the project. During it, the conversation grew lively.
“We could build a trellis for peppers and cucumbers,” said one gardener. “We need benches out by the gardens; there’s no place to sit,” said another. “My 9-year-old grandson was here helping me all summer.” “Maybe we could grow some grapes and make wine.” “This was the first time I ever planted a raised bed; it was easy.” “No weeds!” “This year they told us what we could plant, but next year we can plant whatever we want. I’m going to try some carrots.”
But Hanson is looking closer to home for the next step.
“Why couldn’t we have a couple of indoor beds right here for the winter?” he asked after the meeting, gesturing at the tall, south-facing windows of the common room at Chamberlain Place. “Why couldn’t we have a little greenhouse right here so we can keep on gardening?”