PARIS — As fall kicks into gear, Jim Perkins, Ron Doustou and other residents of Market Square Health Care Center (MSHCC) tend to their courtyard garden and prepare to harvest the remaining vegetables and herbs.
This was the first season residents were able to work the garden and enjoy the fruits of their labor. Perkins and Doustou – who are roommates – spearheaded the project, utilizing MSHCC Resident Council funds for it. Though, the activities department did purchase seeds and plants for the garden and Perkins notes administration has been supportive of the garden.
Perkins is the president of the Resident Council and enlisted his brother, Bill, to help him build the three 4-by-8-foot raised garden beds. They lined the boxes with landscaping cloth and chicken wire not only for drainage, but to keep the critters out. They also constructed arched plastic covers that make the beds look like covered wagons.
“It made it easier for the residents to weed,” Perkins says about the raised beds that are off the ground. He adds there wasn’t a ton of weeding needing to be done due to the good dirt and compost mix the plants grew in.
A major renovation project and the resulting loss of the residential kitchen is what sowed the seeds to grow the garden. Perkins went to tech school in the Oxford Hills for cooking and notes he’s always enjoyed cooking and baking. He used to do both at Market Square and share the fruits of his labor with the residents and employees alike, until the kitchen went by the wayside.
“I used it as psychological therapy,” he says.
So he found a new therapeutic hobby to share with the rest of the facility.
“I said, ‘If I’m ever going to live in a nursing home, I’m not going to play bingo,’” he says. True to his word, he doesn’t play bingo, but calls out the numbers for the game. “We’re trying to change the face of the nursing home. It’s not just a bunch of old people telling war stories.”
Perkins – who graduated high school in 1982 and moved into Market Square nearly two years ago due to multiple sclerosis and a stroke – and Doustou – who is around the same age – also started the weekly karaoke events in attempt to have other activities available to residents and boost morale. While most of the residents won’t get up on the mic, they will sing along in their seats.
“They’re a little mic shy,” Doustou says.
The men and Activity Director Brianna Davis, who has helped with the project, tick off the different crops they had or still have in the garden. Tomatoes, tomatillos, cucumbers, green beans, Brussels sprouts, carrots, peppers, beets and zucchini.
“I didn’t know you were growing zucchini. I thought you were growing cucumbers. That’s how good of a gardener I am,” laughs Doustou.
They also attempted to grow corn and Doustou notes there is only one remaining ear left that the squirrels didn’t get.
“Then we decided to plant it as a deterrent for everything else because if they were going for that they would leave everything else alone,” says Davis.
There is also an herb garden, which features Italian parsley, basil and sage.
“I love the smell of sage,” Perkins says as he picks a leaf, rubs it between his fingers and brings it to his nose to take a whiff. “I enjoy so much coming out here and just working the garden. Especially when I start picking the tomatoes.”
Many of the residents also enjoy the cherry tomatoes that line the sidewalk in separate containers.
“The residents like to … go out to that courtyard and they’ll wheel around the cherry tomatoes and pick them and eat them, which is great,” Perkins says, noting the joy of eating straight off the vine. “They grew them, they might as well have them.”
Earlier that morning, the chef came up to the garden and picked a big bowl of tomatoes to use in meals.
“It’s also saving the facility some money, not a lot,” Perkins says. “When the residents eat it, it’s theirs, they grew it.”
In fact, the garden helps raise funds for the Resident Council, which recently purchased a fountain for the site’s other courtyard. Perkins uses two electric canners to preserve the food they’ve grown and sell in their annual craft sale in November.
So far this year, he has canned pickled beets some of which were donated and he still has about 50 pounds to go. He canned large jars of crushed tomatoes as well. He made plans to get fresh dill brought to the center so he could make pickles from the cucumbers grown in the garden. And the zucchini is cut up in the freezer, waiting to be turned into relish.
“It’s been a lot of work. That makes all that work worth while,” Perkins says.
Next year Perkins promises they’ll have a better idea of what to grow.
“I think we went overboard on trying to get too many items [in the beds]. I think we will have a better yield if we have one bed is just strictly tomatoes, another one is just strictly cucumbers.”
He tried to remember what they decided to grow in the third bed and Doustou says with a smile, “I know it won’t be corn.”