Harvest in the golden years: how gardening keeps these retirees tip-top

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Eighty-nine-year-old Bill Ferguson runs a rototiller down the center of six long beds in the community garden at Longwood at Oakmont. It's obvious he knows his way around the machine as he deftly navigates it around an area behind the retirement community that was used to grow corn. His love of gardening goes back to childhood.

"I had a little garden in the backyard in Kansas. I learned the hard way, all by myself," he says.

His parents had no interest in gardening, but the 12-year-old was hooked. For more than 40 years, he gardened on 6.5 acres in Murrysville. And when he discovered that Longwood had 48 plots reserved for residents, well, there was no doubt how he would spend his free time.

Mr. Ferguson is the chairman of the Plum facility's gardening committee, a job he rotates every few years with other members. He helps get gardeners into the right plot and tends to their needs. When a resident gives one up or can't garden anymore, another takes over the spot. He sees great health benefits for older people in gardening.

"It's good, healthy, invigorating for us to be as active as we can. It improves your life, it improves your health, it's better all the way around."

Like most gardeners he enjoys sharing his harvest, dropping off extra tomatoes at the front desk, where "they magically disappear," he says, smiling.

When asked how long he can keep gardening, he paused. "I don't know. I'm going to keep going as long as I can move."

Another of the committee's rotating chairmen, Peter Kiproff, 90, forgoes the tiller and turns his garden over the old-fashioned way, with a garden fork. "I feel very fortunate to be able to do it."

Like Mr. Ferguson, he gives away part of his harvest.

"It was a good year for tomatoes. I got more than I can eat," he says, adding that he has left more than 20 pounds of tomatoes at the front desk.

Melba Parris, 96, is the oldest person gardening at Longwood. She gives hope to all gardeners, as her passion for digging in the dirt still burns strong. "It's just like making mud pies when I was a child," she says with a laugh.

She grows beans, potatoes and giant 'Brandywine' tomatoes and says she's canned 30 quarts of tomato juice "so far." Mrs. Parris hopes the remaining fruit will provide her with enough juice to get her through the winter.

Standing in one of the garden paths, she holds a letter she sent to her college roommate in 1943. Jessie Messemer Blomquist, who went to MacPherson College with Mrs. Parris, stumbled onto the letter and sent it back to her. Inside are details of the garden Mrs. Parris grew in Kansas during World War II. The letter reads in part:

"We have had quite a lot of rain, but our garden still isn't very good, I guess we just planted it too late."

She went on to describe what she had put up from the first part of the season. The list is impressive: 6 quarts green beans, 1 quart blackberries, 2 quarts strawberries, 3 pints beets and 8 quarts sauerkraut. One has to wonder what she would have put up if the garden had reached her expectations.

Gardening has always been a part of her life. "I can't remember a time I wasn't following my mother around in the garden."

Mrs. Parris didn't know about this garden when she moved into Longwood. She told her brother she was probably done gardening, then called him back when she discovered it. Both were overjoyed.

"I can't imagine you not in the garden," he said.

Robert and Flo Conville didn't do much gardening before moving to Longwood. Their two beds are a mixed bag of flowers and vegetables. Tomatoes and basil share space with calla lilies, a hydrangea and a peony plant they inherited from the plot's previous tenant. Their four tomato plants produced much more than they could use; they gave away the fruit to their church and family.

"It gives us a chance to spend a little time together," Mr. Conville says.

After the couple finishes for the day, they hold hands as they walk slowly back to their home. Mr. Conville holds his wife with his right hand and two fresh garden tomatoes in his left as the sun slips away.


Doug Oster: doster@post-gazette.com or 412-779-5861. Visit his garden blog at www.post-gazette.com/gardeningwithdoug. Twitter: @dougoster1.


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