Healdsburg Senior Living Community

Cultivating Connections

By: Kate Frey Saxon Holt
kate-frey

Kate Frey is a noted garden designer and eloquent advocate for pollinators. She designed and managed the famous organic public…

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Saxon Holt is a professional garden photographer who contributes regularly to Pacific Horticulture and is widely published in books such…

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Tony Fisher, director of Community Garden project at Healdsburg Senior Living Center. Photo: Saxon Holt

Tony Fisher, director of Community Garden project at Healdsburg Senior Living Center. Photo: Saxon Holt

At the Healdsburg Senior Living Community, a legacy lives on in an uplifting garden scene. A large space behind the community is filled with waves of vivid flowers, corn and sunflower fences, sprawling squash vines, precise rows of peppers with fruits like Christmas ornaments, therapy gardens, friendly goats, and darling therapy chickens.

Tony Fisher, the facility’s Marketing Director, conceived this magical scene six years ago as a tribute to his foster mother who raised him and his three brothers, as well as seventy-five other foster children.

 Row crops, flowers, and bees in the vegetable garden at Healdsburg Senior Living Community. Photo: Saxon Holt

Row crops, flowers, and bees in the vegetable garden at Healdsburg Senior Living Community. Photo: Saxon Holt

Annual beds blaze with petunias, marigolds, zinnias, and other colorful seasonal blooms. Photo: Saxon Holt

Annual beds blaze with petunias, marigolds, zinnias, and other colorful seasonal blooms. Photo: Saxon Holt

“She always said what she loved was growing flowers and vegetables, and being around animals,” Tony says. “She was 60 when she raised me and I thought the generation here would also have this connection. I wanted her story and blessing to live on, and I am able to perpetuate it with this garden.”

A gentle ramp walkway provides therapeutic benefits. Photo: Saxon Holt

A gentle ramp walkway provides therapeutic benefits. Photo: Saxon Holt

In addition to providing exercise, the ramp offers an elevated view of neat rows of cabbages and beets. Photo: Saxon Holt

In addition to providing exercise, the ramp offers an elevated view of neat rows of cabbages and beets. Photo: Saxon Holt

For residents who may feel their life spirit is fading, a garden would give them an opportunity to connect with life, he thought, each on their own terms and abilities: actively propagating and transplanting, cutting and arranging flowers, petting the chickens, eating an explosion of cherry tomatoes, or walking the exercise trail through the opulent morning glory-clad arches surrounded by bees, butterflies, and brilliant flowers. Visiting family members appreciate the beauty and young ones run in the open air, interacting with the lively garden.

Tony says, “A garden meets us where we are and lifts us up with its rich beauty.”

Wanting to give all residents the opportunity to experience purpose, value, and contribution, and to connect with life, Tony engages the residents to start each season’s seeds. And while they may plant them too deep or too shallow, they all grow, giving residents a direct connection to the life a seed embodies.

Generous pathways allow residents to stroll or navigate their wheelchair amongst the colorful plantings. Photo: Saxon Holt

Generous pathways allow residents to stroll or navigate their wheelchair amongst the colorful plantings. Photo: Saxon Holt

A stroll or wheelchair ride in the open air among colorful flowers, flitting butterflies, and movement in the garden, offers memory care residents a respite from daily frustrations.

“It allows them to spread their wings.”

When he began this project six years ago, Tony was a complete novice at gardening, and his idea and the garden were initially small. Every year it expands and over time he has developed an efficient system for managing the garden’s complexity, allowing it to be run by a minimal amount of people and effort.

Amending the hard-packed soil with organic compost each year, installing a systematic irrigation system, planting flowers for beneficial insects and bees, crop rotation, strict weeding, and disease-resistant vegetable varieties have generated an easy-to-maintain garden glowing with health, life, and lots of produce. Each year, Tony tries new, colorful varieties to create a “wow” factor for residents. Beehives and worm bins, once entirely new ideas for him, are now a part of life.

A raised bed allows easy access to a variety of plants in the therapeutic tactile garden. Photo: Saxon Holt

A raised bed allows easy access to a variety of plants in the therapeutic tactile garden. Photo: Saxon Holt

Herb barrels with basil and chives for sensory therapy in Community Garden of Healdsburg Senior Living Center, California. Photo: Saxon Holt

Herb barrels with basil and chives for sensory therapy in Community Garden of Healdsburg Senior Living Center, California. Photo: Saxon Holt

The garden keeps growing, and each year it encompasses more area. Recently, an elevated sensory garden was added for those who suffer from loss of touch—but it is intriguing for all. Every two feet along the garden’s edge reveals a different group of low-growing plants at fingertip level, with textures ranging from velvety, grassy, stiff, soft, and rubbery. Alpine and large strawberries are next. On the large bank above them, a profusion of new plants attracts hummingbirds and butterflies.

Residents of Healdsburg Senior Living Center feeding  frisky goats. Photo: Saxon Holt

Residents of Healdsburg Senior Living Center feeding frisky goats. Photo: Saxon Holt

Amusing chickens are are of the lively mix in the gardens at Healdsburg Senior Living Community. Photo: Saxon Holt

Amusing chickens are are of the lively mix in the gardens at Healdsburg Senior Living Community. Photo: Saxon Holt

Each year, Tony adds more funny and friendly chickens, like plush Silkies and frizzled Seramas, breeds and characters whose strutting and capers delight young and old alike.

The garden lives and thrives through the energy of many.

Executive director Rob Matthews does the rototilling and finds funding for the garden. Julia Agee, the activity director, holds activities and parties in the garden. Physical therapists help residents with the new exercise equipment in the garden, and the kitchen staff prepares meals featuring garden produce each day.

The community’s owners, John Alaux and Tom Patzke, listened to Tony’s enthusiastic idea for the garden and gave him the opportunity and freedom to create it. Now, they express pride in the profuse and vibrant perfection of each row. But it is facility workers, Javier and Lino Castro and Lino Montebello, who are its primary tenders, and who work with Tony to perform a multitude of tasks in the garden and around the property to keep it manicured and glowing with health. The garden is a daily showcase of perfection, revealing the pride, attention, and efforts of many. Tony says, “People say the garden is amazing. I tell them, what is amazing to me is that there are not more like it.” His greatest wish is that he and the garden can help generate more gardens of life and connection.

People tell him, “Tony, I didn’t know you were creative.” He replies, “I didn’t either.” Turns out a garden is in all of us.