Finding Community at Eskaton Garden
By Gary VanDeWalker
How Does Your Garden GrowJuly 2015
By Gary Vandewalker
Photos: Taryn Burkleo
A garden is a magical place. From its first beginnings in Eden, the garden has been a source of life, community and the wonder of creation. For the residents of Eskaton Washington Manor in Mount Shasta, as their hands dig in the soil there is a new richness to summer days. Twirls of tomato vines, tall stalks of corn and the fresh smell of cilantro represent community for the independent living residents.
For Debbie Bailey, Eskaton's director, the garden begins in Susanville, where another independent living facility planted a garden. Her thoughts go to a piece of ground in Mount Shasta – a well-guarded, fenced-in plot of weeds belonging to Eskaton's neighbor, Dignity Health. The local hospital offers the ground for long-term use, with the residence facility needing only to run electricity and water to the site.
"I'm disappointed at first," Bailey says. "There isn't much interest when we first obtained the area five years ago." Yet as raised planting beds are built, interest sparks. The green of the garden begins to grow. As attention is given to the garden, the greater community of Mount Shasta takes notice. Solano Hardware offers building materials, rock and bark. Sousa Ready Mix provides gravel, while Knight Excavation brings in a truckload of fertile soil. The residents refurbish an old greenhouse while Eskaton, a non-profit, pays to puts a new covering over the framework.
Each year now, this garden grows in its reach into the lives of the people living here. While Eskaton supports the garden, it is the residents who donate and maintain many of the resources needed. "The garden helps make life here be three-dimensional,"
Bailey says. "Its easy to become isolated. Here is an opportunity to enjoy nature and each other."
When John Keenan arrives to live here four years ago, he notices the garden lacks attention. "I've always been oriented to the outdoors," Keenan says. "In terms of life, every day I want to make an improvement and make a change." He rallies his new neighbors and challenges them to help him begin pulling weeds, assuming the informal position of chief gardener.
"The garden is much more than a supplement to people's food here," Bailey says. "It’s a place of social activity, where people can work alongside, creating a sense of community with one another." Through the seasons of planting, tending, harvesting and composting, friendships are born and grow along with the plants. With 24 active gardeners, ranging from 62 to 81 years old, they cultivate 16 raised boxes and eight ground areas. A deer-proof fence keeps wildlife in the role of admiring from a distance.
Coming to the garden is like attending an art show. Each gardener uses their space as a canvas, creating a work unique to themselves. Many plant flowers, bringing warmth and a brightness to the vegetable canopy around them. The artists defy the odds of the short growing season here, with one developing 300 tomato plants.
For their future, the gardeners look to obtain a more permanent greenhouse. Now, they mingle with the people from the community who come by and sit with the residents and let the beauty of the garden guide their conversations. A water meter lets them be conservation minded as the abundance of labor grows around them. The afternoon breeze caresses the plants as the sun warms the soil. Keenan looks at the visitors, workers and vegetables around him. "It’s rewarding to work here," Keenan says. "The garden is the most significant thing in my life right now."