Raised gardening beds perfect for seniors

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By Jane Keller Gordon, Assistant Editor 

The greenhouse at the Marlborough Senior Center
Photo/Marlborough Senior Center

Region – This spring, seniors some who use wheelchairs will be weeding vegetable plants in a new greenhouse at the Marlborough Senior Center. Thanks to Kate Donovan, founder of the Blackstone Valley Veggie Gardens, the greenhouse will be outfitted with six raised beds, including two that are wheelchair accessible. 

Lisa Martino is the program coordinator at the center. 

“Our plan is a farm-to-table greenhouse where volunteers work together to grow fruits, vegetables, and fresh herbs that will be used right here at our center’s lunch program,” she said.

Martino added, “This project started as a dream for me. When our director Trish Pope asked me what my heart would really desire for the center, I told her that since I have a bit of a green thumb, I would love to start a gardening program. Trish took that ball and ran. She explored many avenues and received several grants to fund the project. After several years, we are thrilled to finally see everything come to fruition.” 

The plan is to plant herbs, salad greens, kale, tomatoes, bell peppers, onions, snow peas, radishes and carrots, and melons. 

Raised beds at the Bellingham Senior Center
Photo/Kate Donovan

“Since the greenhouse is about 10 degrees warmer than outside, we can start sooner than when you plant in the ground,” Donavan explained. 

While there are benefits to raised bed gardening in a greenhouse, including far less bugs, there is a lot to take into account. 

“We need to consider ventilation, the lack of wind, and the absence of bees for pollination. The hoses need to be moveable so that we can water the beds and rinse vegetables. Since the frames won’t be exposed to the elements, we’ll build them out of fir, which is a less expensive hard pine. Many outdoor beds are built using cedar,” said Donovan. 

As a cancer survivor, Donovan believes in the power of gardening. For seniors, she believes, she said, that gardening “improves the immune system; relieves stress and anxiety; may reduce the risk of dementia; is good exercise; that fresh air can do wonders for mood and health; and it leads to better nutrition.”

Kate Donovan (l) and Deborah Hart
Photo/ Jane Keller Gordon

Donovan’s interest in gardening dates back to her childhood. 

“My grandfather came here from Italy as a young man in his 20s,” she noted. “He had a house in Belmont with an in-ground garden where he grew peppers, tomatoes, lettuce and eggplant, which we ate.”

An IT analyst by day, Donovan’s interest was reborn in 2007 when she was diagnosed with early stage breast cancer. 

“I wanted to change the way I ate, knowing that weight is a contributing factor. Eating whole foods and getting more involved in eating fruits and veggies was important to me. I started gardening at home,” said Donovan.

Bellingham Senior Center
Photo/Kate Donovan

In 2016, along with Eric Bromberg, who has a Master Gardener certification, Donovan launched Blackstone Valley Veggie Gardens. Its mission is to “… deliver residential and community-based training, consulting, and assistance in vegetable garden development.”

Forty people showed up for her first presentation, held at the Blackstone Library, on growing tomatoes.  

Last year Donovan gave 60 presentations on 15 different subjects, in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. She spoke about raised bed gardening at the Boston Flower and Garden Show. She talked about an organic approach to gardening with a focus on enriching soil without chemicals. Her presentation on companion planting and design explains how to use plants in order to enhance other plants.

In addition to the Senior Center in Marlborough, Donovan has worked with the Bellingham Senior Center to create raised beds. She has worked with residential clients, including several widows who have gardened all their lives. 

Donovan’s son Daniel and son-in-law, Felix Alfredo Martinez, help with the heavy lifting. Her sister-in-law, Deb Hart of Southborough is helping promote the business to senior centers. 

For more information about raised bed gardening, visit Blackstonevalleyveggiegardens.com