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The 6,000-square-foot garden at the Healdsburg Senior Living Community took a second-place People's Choice award in this year's "Grateful Bed" competition, sponsored by iGrow Sonoma County. But it's more than just a pretty place.

The lush, colorful plot earns its keep by providing fresh herbs, fruits and vegetables to the community, and provides an oasis of activity and regeneration for residents and their guests.

"I think of vibrancy and healing," said Tony Fisher, director of marketing, as he stood beside the frantically blooming zinnias. "The gardens give the residents purpose, value and importance. They are engaged in all we do."

It all started in 2010 when Fisher sought permission to create a garden on a weed-infested 300-square-foot plot. Owners John Alaux and Tom Patzke said yes in a flash. Fisher realized quickly that the community's residents come from an era when gardening was an important part of life.

"This is the generation of the victory gardens, World War II rationing and Great Depression subsistence," Fisher said.

By spring 2013, it boasted a gazebo, a greenhouse and paths that could accommodate wheelchairs, and had expanded to more than 3,000 square feet. Fisher had created a curriculum of activities tied to tending and harvesting the plants, as well as designing arrangements with the flowers.

When it came time to reclaim that land for a new wing at the "boutique" facility, the garden was moved to a fallow field where it could be expanded to 6,000 square feet.

Although he has no background in gardening, Fisher's newfound passion is contagious. Residents were engaged in the process from the beginning, starting with the selection of seeds.

Fisher said he visits the Petaluma Seed Bank and "goes a little crazy" adding seeds to his bucket. If one species of tomatoes is good, then 20 must be better. Why stop at one type of pumpkin, when you can have six?

"He's our Master Gardener in the making," said facility administrator Rob Matthews. "He has reached out to so many contacts, and they have offered a wealth of knowledge.

"He has earned the undying support of the owners of the facility, but most of all the residents get so much joy from the project."

Each year, Fisher adds new layers to the garden. This year he added cutting flowers, a plethora of bold-colored zinnias. Next year, he's considering worm bins, and with each addition, his mind turns to the residents and how they will interact with it.

On each week's activity list, activities director Julia Agee adds "Tony's Garden Delights," a class that might involve planting or sampling the tomatoes or melons as they ripen.

Last year, one of Fisher's favorite activities was cutting the sunflower seed heads and asking residents to dig out the seeds.

"Gloria was going crazy, digging for 'gold,' " Fisher said. "She created a big pile of the seeds, then all the seeds went into the bird feeders."

He finds ways to include all the residents, regardless of their abilities.

"We made a calendar of garden photos, and Betty was shown as the official garden taster. When she passed away, I was able to share with her family just how much she loved the garden and how engaged she was."

Fisher found a way to involve a resident who was nearly unable to talk after having a stroke. He carted all his planting paraphernalia into her room and asked if she would like to help plant the vegetables.

With a light tray on her stomach, she was able to drop seeds from her finger into each of 24 prepared pots. While she did, Fisher described the tomatoes they would produce for residents to share with staff and visitors.

When she died, Fisher shared the planting story with her daughter, who returned later in the season for a few of the tomatoes.

"As a destination place, the garden also offers the motivation to press through," said Fisher.

Physical therapy often is hard work accompanied by a lot of pain. Therapists regularly walk or roll people to the garden as a way to inspire them to keep working.

Jo Ryan, a new resident who strolled through the garden with her daughter, said she made her final decision to live there because of the garden. She wants to get her hands in the dirt.

"I'm the farmer's daughter," said Ryan with a laugh. "You can't take the farmer out of me. I love to see this garden growing and thriving."

"This garden was a huge selling point for my mother," said her daughter Kelly Ryan. "I know she's going to be happy here."

Fisher and Matthews get help tending the garden from Javier Castro and Lino Montebello, who do the hardest physical work and tend to its daily needs. They also take vegetables and fruits home to enjoy.

Kitchen staff walk through the garden with stainless steel bowls harvesting melons, squash and herbs. It's a daily routine to first check the garden for produce.

"When the residents talk to me of 'my' garden," said Fisher, "I remind them that it is their garden. While I might be the facilitator, they are the driving force. They are the planters, and they create the miracle of life.

"The beauty starts with the seed dropping to the earth," said Fisher. "I remind them of the magic of growing things."

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