The hidden gardens of Middlebury

The success of any garden is measured by the pleasure it brings to the people who use it. And, when many people use a garden, there is much pleasure to go around.
Hidden behind the walls of the Helen Porter Healthcare and Rehabilitation Center in Middlebury is a garden that is enjoyed by hundreds of people in sundry ways. It is a garden that serves the entire Helen Porter community — not only the residents and their visitors, but also the many staff and volunteers associated with the nursing home.
On a warm summer afternoon you might see a visitor quietly chatting with an elderly parent; a couple of staff members leading a group of residents in a gentle ball game; a rehab therapist carefully guiding a patient around the smooth flat path; and a group of residents and UVM Extension master gardeners tending vegetables in raised beds.
And from time to time special garden events, such as the annual Pumpkin Festival coming in October, draw a huge crowd.
In what follows, by means of a few personal stories, I would like to illustrate some of the ways this special garden brings happiness to its unique community.
More than 20 years ago, during the initial design of the nursing home, Burlington landscape architect Terry Boyle proposed the building have a three-sided configuration and a south-facing orientation, specifically to create a warm and sheltered space (approximately 130 feet by 160 feet) for the residents. He then added a grove of lacy honey locust trees for shade.
Credit for the careful spatial design goes to Susan Potter Davis of Weybridge, working as a volunteer master gardener with the enthusiastic support of Neil Gruber, the nursing home director at the time.
Completed over a decade ago, the results of her work still resonate today. She used a curved lattice fence and a long water feature to divide the overall space into two distinct gardens. Each garden offers a smooth winding circular path for pushing wheelchairs and paved sitting areas for relaxing. The smaller of the two, the Lemon Fair garden, is used primarily by memory-care residents, while the larger Otter Creek garden serves both long-term nursing home residents as well as shorter-stay rehab patients.
Soothing sounds of moving water emanate from the marvelous water feature Susan designed. Its central waterfall, flanked by large smooth rocks, is set in a 20-foot long shallow trough of water that can be explored by young and old alike. Susan is also quick to praise the way several local businesses stepped up to implement her unique design without charge. Thus, right from the outset, the garden was a community initiative.
In 2009 a new group of UVM Extension master gardeners, myself included, started a summer gardening project at Helen Porter. First we met with several residents to find out what they would enjoy growing. The answer was lots of vegetables plus some flowers!
To create a new veggie garden, the staff built two new raised beds at wheelchair level in the Otter Creek garden, adding to an existing one.
Now master gardeners meet weekly for a delightful afternoon with interested residents, where we tend both the raised beds and the in-ground flower bed. More recently we added a new bed with fragrant, non-toxic plants for the Lemon Fair residents. Next year there are plans for more veggies at that end, too.
Our activities with the residents revolve around the time-honored gardening cycle: In April we start seeds; toward the end of May we plant outdoors; June and July are for weeding and watering; and August and September are for harvesting the edibles, and for arranging flowers by interested residents. And, when Mother Nature does not oblige, four volunteers take turns watering everything.
Residents are encouraged to get their hands in the soil as much — or as little — as they like. It seems everyone enjoys sampling the harvest while reminiscing about their earlier gardens. And many also love to arrange vases of flowers, as a way of taking some of the garden indoors.
Selina was among the initial group of residents who met with the master gardeners to tell us what they would like to grow. And every summer she has been a regular member of our weekly gardening sessions.
Selina has always loved growing things. All four of her grandparents were farmers in Clark, N.J., where they grew fresh vegetables to sell in the nearby cities. She recalls the Friday evening ritual, helping her grandparents load their trucks with freshly picked produce to sell at the Newark Farmers Market. (Of course today, in this part of New Jersey the farms are long gone, now replaced by an endless sea of houses.)
Selina married a Vermonter and a Navy man who was serving on the Mediterranean convoys in World War II. After the war they settled in his hometown of Swanton, Vt., where she raised her family and also tended a huge garden. She smiles as she recalls how passersby would stop their cars to admire her wonderful flowers. And each summer she entered her exhibits of flowers and vegetables at the local county fair.
Now, as a resident at Helen Porter, Selina enjoys exhibiting in the Home and Garden section at Addison County Fair and Field Days.
This year she prepared four entries from the Helen Porter garden: string beans, Swiss chard, a pint of Sun Gold cherry tomatoes, and a lovely arrangement of garden flowers. And she was completely overjoyed to hear that she had garnered three blue ribbons (highest honor) for her veggies, plus a red ribbon for her flower arrangement.
But then Selina said, “This is our community garden and the ribbons belong to all of us.” So now, at her suggestion, all four ribbons hang proudly on the notice board in the front hall — a tribute to the entire gardening community at Helen Porter!
Margaret, a serene lady in her 90s, has been a resident here for just a few months. Her son Joe, who lives in Colchester and visits his mother every Monday, said that, despite the distance from his home, they chose Helen Porter for two reasons: the friendly caring staff and the lovely accessible garden.
As he gently massaged his mother’s legs, Joe told me how, as a child, Margaret spent time in her parents’ flower-filled conservatory. And as an adult, even while raising 10 children, she always found time to grow flowers.
Today it is the flowers in the Helen Porter garden that are guaranteed to bring a smile to Margaret’s face.
Andy Mitchell is responsible for grounds maintenance across the entire complex at Porter Medical Center. But his singular pride is the nursing home garden. He clips the shrubs, mows the lawn and rakes the leaves. He also greets all the residents by name and cheers on the volunteer master gardeners.
As Selina remarked to me recently, “Andy does such a wonderful job in the courtyard, keeping everything looking so nice for all of us!”
These stories illustrate a just few ways this special garden brings pleasure to the entire Helen Porter community — residents, staff, visitors and volunteers. To paraphrase a well-known saying:
It takes a community to raise a garden!
VEGETABLES AND FLOWERS grow beautifully in the raised beds at the Helen Porter garden. / Photo by Richard Conrad

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