Maine Seniors Garden on the Rooftop: More Than Peas and Tomatoes - It's Dreaming Big
Charles Taylor, a 74-year-old life-long gardener, composter, and advocate of cooking and grilling fresh foods, lost his gardening land when he relocated from his house to an apartment. So, in the summer of 2009 he found himself clambering out of a window onto the second story rooftop of the Hammond Street Senior Center in search of a space to grow the fresh vegetables he loved.
The sunny Bangor, Maine senior center roof started out as a spot for a few tomato plants and leafy greens. Now it is growing into a model to inspire healthy eating, gardening for exercise, and a place for seniors to dream big.
"You can lose a piece of yourself because you’ve lost your land. Our land is on the roof."
At first, the rooftop buckets and window boxes were a secret shared by just a few of the 2,100 senior center members. But when the first year’s plants were ready to harvest, Taylor created huge salad that he gave to center’s executive director.
After the initial shock and vision of the center’s senior members climbing out a small window to their rooftop garden wore off, the center’s staff realized that they were eating a “darn good salad.”
The Hammond Street Senior Center's entry,"Still Growing" Senior Community Rooftop Garden, is a winner in the Revelation to Action: Your Place. Your Idea. Your Change competition.
The Hammond Street Senior Center serves an important need for a large population of older residents. There are more people over the age of 65 in Maine than any other state in the United States—about 14 percent of Maine's residents are older than 65 years, and nearly 11.5 percent of them live alone at home.
Bangor’s population of seniors is even higher because the best hospital in the northeastern corner of Maine is located in Bangor. Membership in the Hammond Street Senior Center is free, and the center has become a place for Bangor’s large senior population to connect, socialize, and teach others about topics as diverse as chess, belly dancing, pottery, meditation, computer social networking, and healthy eating.
“Land is such an important part of our identity in Maine,” said Deanna Partridge, the center’s Development and Communications Director. “You can lose a piece of yourself because you’ve lost your land.
The demand for the vegetables is so high that the center hopes to secure enough resources to fill the entire second rooftop with raised beds.
"Our land is on the roof, so we’re happy to give our members the land we have to grow healthy food. Particularly now that we’ve built a safe, walk-out window to access the roof, we’ll do whatever it takes to make our members feel like this is their place.”
Recently, the Hammond Street Senior Center surveyed its membership about topics such as quality of life, health self-assessment, and what they wanted from the aging experience to find ways the center could help seniors in these areas. Nearly 80 percent said they saw a link between healthy eating and aging, but only 40 percent of members claimed good eating habits.
"(We) want to redefine the way people envision space, and encourage others to start gardening in different locations, for social engagement and physical activity . . . . We want our experience to show future seniors that anything is possible, and give them permission to dream big.”
“It was important to provide our members with access to healthy fresh vegetables in small quantities that wouldn’t spoil before they could use it,” Partridge said. “This frugal generation won’t buy vegetables at all if they come in quantities that they can’t eat before they go bad. A lot of the members also didn’t know how to cook in small quantities, or thought it was too much of a bother.”
The center addresses this by selling greens out of the garden in small, affordable sandwich-sized bags. They attend workshops about how to grow and cook with fresh herbs, as well as a monthly vegetarian lunch featuring the rooftop’s produce.
“Our garden workshops and lunches involve between 35 to 50 members," Partridge said. "When they watch the lunch being made, they know that healthy food can be easy to prepare, as well as be tasty.
“Our vegetarian lunch menu has featured quiches flavored with fresh herbs, stuffed eggplant, cold gazpacho soup, and edible flowers that are not used only as a garnish.”
Charles and Bob Taylor building
the rooftop garden beds April
"The Changemakers competition has helped to make other people aware of our value and contribution to the community," Partridge said. The Hammond Street Senior Center was able to leverage its finalist status in the Revelation to Action competition to garner media coverage from all three network television stations and the local Bangor newspaper, something it had never been able to achieve in the past.
"The garden has taken on a life of its own," Partridge said. "Bangor residents who never know about the center are dropping in to ask to get a tour of the rooftop garden."
Partridge plans to use Hammond Street's $5,000 prize for winning the Revelation to Action competition to double the size of the garden. A conversation at the Celebration Event in Boston for the ten winners of the Revelation to Action competition has sparked a collaboration with the Maine Discovery Museum's summer camp, Partridge said. They will be bringing young people to the rooftop to do "intergenerational gardening."
This year the Hammond Street Senior Center constructed raised beds for zucchini, squash, pumpkins, tomatoes, beans, eggplant, potatoes, carrots, beets, onions, peppers, lettuce, mixed greens, Swiss chard, herbs and a variety of flower patches. They’ve also built scaffolding for climbing peas and beans.
We hope to use our finalist status to start a conversation about . . . creating a satisfying, dignified ageing experience—then this project is much bigger than peas and tomatoes.”
The demand for the vegetables is so high that the center hopes to secure enough resources to fill the entire second rooftop with raised beds; build cold frames for growing vegetables in colder months; and develop a potting shed and greenhouse that they can use to grow seedlings in the winter. The center also has a third floor roof where the garden could expand further.
Charles being interviewed by Channel 5 news
"Our long-term vision is to make all of the rooftops in Bangor green” —Deanna Partridge
"We want that conversation to include a discussion about what it means to age well, because we all have that right. If this garden helps us to have those conversations about creating a satisfying, dignified ageing experience, then this project is much bigger than peas and tomatoes.”
Hammond Street herb workshop
“We tried to capture information about the project in a way it can be disseminated easily," Partridge said. "We want to honor the seniors who started this work by documenting their value.
"If we don’t capture that now, the project will lose the essence of the idea and the passion. If people who work in social change don’t document their work through frequent photographs and interviews to create a social record, then no one else will know how to recreate what they’ve done. We want our experience to show future seniors that anything is possible, and give them permission to dream big.”