||The new raised garden beds at All Saints Retirement Community offer an opportunity for residents to get their hands in the dirt without their knees or backs offering protest. (Catholic Herald photo/Sue Klamer Barry)
MADISON -- A senior center gardening project that has been in the dreaming stage with one resident for several years has came to fruition this spring at the All Saints Retirement Community in Madison. On Wednesday, June 2, about 125 residents and supporters gathered for a dedication ceremony of the 10 raised garden beds now growing there on the patio at the Retirement Center.
The person who has done all the on-ground organizing is Dennis Harle, a resident with his wife at All Saints Community. Harle has organized an All Saints Garden Club and has gathered a good number of residents into the project, according to Neighborhood Manager Katie Roellig.
According to Harle, “I’m a relatively new resident to All Saints Retirement Center, having moved here just last Thanksgiving with my wife Janet. The main reason we chose All Saints is because the manager Katie was very open to my idea of starting a senior’s garden group here.”
Some of the important goals of the group, he explained, are providing an opportunity for the residents to get involved in its stimulating activities. “Many studies have shown that there is great therapeutic value to gardening. Getting outdoors to do some co-creating with the Almighty while enjoying the company of others is something that this provides,” Harle said.
He added that he believes it was important to make the first garden accessible to all residents so it was decided to locate it on the patio in what are usually called “elevated beds” which are elevated about three feet off of the ground so that bending over isn’t needed. Residents in wheelchairs and walkers as well as those who are frail or have bad backs can easily access the raised beds.
It also came in very handy that the retirement center has its own retired resident cabinet maker Bob McCann. He explained prior to the dedication, “It took me about 24 hours to build the first bed, but once you get the pattern down on the first one, it is easier to make the next one.” Several of his family members also attended the dedication and beamed at McCann’s beautiful contribution to the project.
According to Harle, “with Bob’s expertise we were able to have these raised beds built at a fraction of the cost they’d have been had we purchased them already assembled or from kits. Many of our residents donated generously to our project and in less than a month we already had all 10 beds built.”
The funds for the project were raised entirely from donations from residents of All Saints Community and from some of their family members. Manager Roellig made her own personal donation and put all the donations into a trust fund until the money was needed. Other than the Bruce Company donating soil, the rest of the project was paid for by residents. Resident volunteers have signed up to be responsible for weeding and care for individual raised bed boxes. It truly is a group effort and self-supporting, according to Harle.
According to Tom Nelson, director of the Rural Life Office of Catholic Charities, which has been following the project, “the Bruce Company was so impressed by the design and crafting of the raised beds that they offered to provide, at no cost, the planting soil to fill the garden beds.”
Nelson said in a statement prior to the dedication that his office of Rural Life Ministries in conjunction with Catholic Charities, who owns All Saints Community, hopes to see this project become sustainable here as well as providing a model for other senior residential communities in the direct growing of healthy foods for their community.
“On behalf of Catholic Charities we are grateful to Dennis, manager Katie Roellig, and all the Garden Club members of All Saints for their efforts to make this project a reality, and we wish them a successful growing season,” Nelson said.
Celebration of the project
The day was truly a celebration of lots of hard work — planning, giving, and caring by a number of people who helped bring this senior gardening project together. There was fellowship, refreshments, and food to share with the optimistic supporters who gathered.
According to Harle, he has great hopes of expanding this garden project and he is looking to Nelson and to Rural Life Ministries for their help in writing proposals for grant money. Nelson and Brian Cain, president of Catholic Charities, were both in attendance at the garden dedication and Cain cut the ribbon to officially kick off the project.
Resident, retired priest, Fr. George Fox officiated at the ceremony and blessed the raised beds and the supporters of the program. He also opened the ceremony with a short eulogy of the patron saint of gardening, St. Fiacre, who lived in the 600s.
According to Father Fox, St. Fiacre, an Irish monk, was better known in France, where he built an oratory to the Virgin Mary — a hospice for travelers. He was known for his healing herbs and people flocked to him for miraculous cures mostly by the laying on of hands. In search of solitude he went deeper into the forest, and according to legend, Father Fox said, St. Faro, the bishop of Mauex, offered him as much land as he could turn in one day. It is said, he drew a trench with his staff and in the morning the land was all cultivated. So many people flocked to him, a monastery grew around him. He built a hut near a well and grew a beautiful garden of herbs, vegetables, fruits, and flowers. He was said to be not only a great gardener, but a great healer.
Father Fox also referred to several great gardens in the Bible, such as the Garden of Eden and the Garden of Gethsemane. “Since biblical times, gardens have been sacred,” he said.
Teamwork builds community
Harle explained how after a couple of monthly meetings in April and May, his garden group had already grown to 21 actively involved residents and another dozen or so who wanted to be kept informed through a newsletter. The 21 actively involved residents divided the beds (and themselves) into three groups who were responsible for planning, planting, and maintaining the group’s beds.
Rather than assign individual beds to residents, “we felt it is important to work in groups to keep a feeling of community with the project,” Harle said.
“We want all residents of our 144 apartments, 12 condos, and several cottages who have a desire to be involved to be able to get involved in whatever capacity they desire, even if it is just being able to enjoy the gardens,” Harle said. The raised beds allow residents who are frail or who use walkers to also be able to reach the beds, according to Harle.
“There are lots of plans for the future including raised beds (in the ground) in a courtyard area, a large composting project, and in-ground gardens in another area to name a few,” he said.
Manager Katie Roellig said after the dedication that she was very happy with the turnout and with the support for the project from so many residents and their families.
“It is amazing what so many of them did on their own to contribute and what a little teamwork can do,” she said. “In addition, though weather threatened to spoil the party, it didn’t rain.”
All Saints resident Elaine Bush said in a phone interview, “I am enjoying the gardens. My husband mostly did the garden work when we were younger. I mostly watched then. This is something new for me. I staked up tomatoes here for the first time and I am enjoying it.”
Another resident Janice Selvig said she and her husband were sick when the raised beds initially got started and so for this year they missed out on those, but there is another area where some topsoil was piled and some residents planted zucchini, cucumbers, pole beans, and rhubarb.
According to Nelson, Harle has been in contact with the Extension Office Master Gardeners from the UW-Extension Research Center for suggestions of which plant types might be best for the community. Harle has also reached out to other west-side senior communities to view their garden projects and to begin exploring the possibilities of partnering in a larger effort of providing our senior residents the opportunity to enjoy the many benefits of gardening and having fresh, nutritious foods easily available to the residents.
All Saints Resident Lorena Gordon, who is one of the team captains, said, “I wanted to see the project get started. We talked about it for two years. Dennis has gone all out trying to get it going.”
Harle says he wanted to do something to help people. His main career was that of electronic engineering, but in 1990 he left that behind and started his own business in landscaping. He ran a successful horticulture business from 1986 to 2008. He spent most of his life in Platteville and has just been in Madison a couple of years. “My real passion is to help seniors in this area of expertise,” he said.
Harle is excited about the future of this program. “What we’ve done so far is just a good beginning to what I hope will grow into something so special that other retirement communities in the area will want to join in and emulate parts of what we’ve done,” he said.
Harle welcomes inquiries to find out more about the All Saints Garden Project. His number is 608-836-9840 and his e-mail is
Correction: Fr. George Fox was incorrectly referred to as "Msgr. George Fox" in the article "Raised beds offer gardens for seniors" in the July 22 issue of the Catholic Herald. We apologize for the error.