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.