By Megan Fainsinger
The rooftop garden is comprised of four worn and neglected raised beds. The view from the fifth floor of the 19th century respite home for seniors and clergy is expansive, interrupted only by spires and a nearby steeple. On this day, rolling green hills and vast stretches of grey skies ring the railings of the garden in the sky.
At twelve inches high, “raised” in itself, is a questionable criteria for a flower bed. Particularly for one in a wheelchair, or seated on a walker, for it is a full forward bend and a shift of weight to near tipping point that will allow fingers to reach the soil. Digging requires a further stretch to go deeper. “ Are you worried I will fall?” she chuckles, “Might break a leg? Remember, I’m terminal.”
The weight of wet soil added to a trowel in a wrist is an old, familiar habit but now a challenge. A rotation of the arm to shift the soil, from the handheld trowel to the edge of the hole, for what is to be planted is motivating. This triggers the muscle memory of grown gardens, picked flowers and harvested fruits of past decades. As they dig, memories engage the gardeners, for that is who they are. A sense of self and purpose fills the hour as the clouds get darker. A comment on the color of the flowers to be planted is a pause of note that says “I am present.” A reach to feel how wet the soil is to the touch provides a momentary calculation of what the garden needs and a respite from needs of self. A glance upwards to the sky, as the sounds of the church bells toll, is assessed as imminent rain.
The suggestion of ending the planting session because of cold and wind brings the 96 year old participant to ask, “Are you worried I will get sick? Get a cold perhaps? Who cares, I am terminal.” Her eyes sparkle as she laughs and coughs. She takes deep breaths as she shuffles indoors to retrieve a rain jacket. She returns in a fur coat. Glancing at the trays of unplanted annuals, she puts her hand out to feel the drizzle. “ Well let’s get this done,” she says, as she wipes her bloody nose once more, embarrassed at the public display of what ails her. She has lived beyond all the doctor’s expectations. She will not quit. It is she who keeps us going on that rooftop, to plant a garden, that none of us believe she will ever see in bloom.
She saw the flowers bloom last year. She watched the weeds takeover, choke out the flowers and wither from the heat. More recently she returned from hospice and seated herself at her usual place at the far end of the table. “Well let’s get started, this is the reason I got dressed today.”
The ARTS By The People’s Floral Arts program reaches more than 120 seniors a month. The Therapeutic Horticulture sessions offer opportunities to engage and challenge participants through nature-based educational and sensory table top activities. Programs are held on a weekly, bi-monthly or monthly basis at numerous senior centers for participants in independent and assisted living, as well as closed Memory Care Units. Modified outdoor gardening opportunities are included and are site specific.
Megan worked in Special Education and holds a certificate in Horticultural Therapy from New York Botanical Gardens. She is a certified Master Gardener and a board member of the Mid-Atlantic Horticultural Therapy Network.