Gardening a source of food, fun, health for Kenai seniors

They feel about their plants the way Jay Leno feels about his vintage automobiles.


“Aren’t these pretty?” Peggy Meyer asked.

The 87-year-old Vintage Pointe Manor resident held in her hand two cucumbers as fat as sausages. She grew them from the plants sitting in her living room window.

Meyer and three other senior center residents — Helen Carlson, 85; Vi Hall, 83; and Martha Snyder, 84 — garden together frequently. They grow in four raised beds and many pots carrots, squash, chard, broccoli, pod peas, zucchini, lettuce, onions, tomatoes, jalapeños, forget-me-nots, violets and — even — pumpkins.

“They go out there and check their plants almost every day,” said Rachael Craig, senior center director. “I’d say every day they’re out there every day, doing something to them.”

Meyer grew up in the Depression years. Gardening was a necessity.

When she moved to the senior center, after she sold her property, she asked if she could bring her greenhouse.

She said she wouldn’t even have moved there if she couldn’t have gardened.

Her three friends love gardening, too. It makes them feel good, they said — spending the time outside; sharing their bounty with others; eating the fresh cucumbers, squash and tomatoes.

Lydia Clayton, agriculture and horticulture agent for the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service, said gardening has many benefits for seniors.

It can be a social adventure, for one, she said.

“Many (seniors) — many, many of them — and not just in Alaska, spend a lot of time by themselves,” Clayton said.

Gardening is an effective way at increasing time spent with others, she said.

Aside from the physical routines — walking, planting, plucking — gardening satisfies seniors by providing them something they can give back. Clayton sees that satisfaction in the UAF Master Gardener Program.

Many of the gardeners in the program are seniors. Once trained in the program, the seniors are required to give 40 hours of volunteer time, and Clayton said that often seems to be the most rewarding aspect of the program for the seniors.

The four women said they give away much of their produce.

Vegetables picked and eaten fresh are tastier, too, Carlson said. Snyder said they also contain more vitamins.

Once harvested, vegetables immediately lose some of their nutrients. Most vegetables stocked in grocery stores travel thousands of miles from the Lower 48 before they are eaten. Eating straight from the garden is healthier, Clayton said.

Three years ago the senior center switched from the traditional meat-and-grain-centric diet to one based on vegetables and fruits. Craig said local gardening supplements many diets around the building.

Marion Nelson, president of the Central Peninsula Garden Club, said there is another reason seniors garden: It just feels good.

“Gardening is very therapeutic,” she said. “We live to get our hands back in the dirt each spring.”

Before Meyer, Carlson, Hall and Snyder lived at the senior center, gardening was a significant part of their lives, Craig said.

Now that they have left their previous homes, they still have gardening, and with it, their independence and quality of life, she said.

“It’s something they really enjoy,” she said, “and it’s something they’ve done all their lives.”

Dan Schwartz can be reached at