Tribune Print Share Text

Growing together

Local high school students help Oak Crest residents get their gardens ready to grow

Created date

June 5th, 2015
Oak Crest residents
Oak Crest residents

For most gardeners, the return of warmer weather is an invitation to get back outside and get their hands dirty again. But longtime gardener Mary Ann Manning says the key to a plentiful garden starts long before spring takes a foothold. 

“I usually start my garden in January,” says Mary Ann, who lives at Oak Crest, an Erickson Living community in Parkville, Md. “You have to have good soil if you are going to have good vegetables.”

Mary Ann’s recipe for nutrient-rich soil is easy: compost with a layer of straw on top, and let nature go to work. “As the straw starts to decompose, worms force themselves up through the soil to have dinner, breaking up the soil in the process and taking the fertilizer back down deep with them,” says Mary Ann. “The deeper down you can get that natural fertilizer, the better. It usually takes January, February, and March to really get the soil ready to go.”

Garden variety

Mary Ann grows vegetables and donates her harvest to the Helping Up Mission, a nondenominational Christian organization that helps the homeless and addicted in Baltimore City. 

“I grow anything you can eat—tomatoes, cucumbers, beets, string beans—a little bit of everything,” says Mary Ann. “Normally, I save some of what I grow to cook with, but since I moved here, there are so many dining choices that I don’t cook much anymore.”

Mary Ann gets a headstart on her garden by growing seedlings in the on-site greenhouse until they are big enough to survive in the ground. Like most seasoned gardeners, she has a few time-tested tricks, including one for growing great tomatoes. 

“I add a number of ingredients to the soil for my tomatoes, including aspirin,” says Mary Ann. “The aspirin strengthens their immune system to fight off bacteria and insects.” 

This April, Mary Ann, along with more than a dozen other Oak Crest gardeners, got her garden started with a helping hand from high school students at Rosedale Baptist School. Fourteen tenth-grade biology students, led by teacher David Myers, helped dig, rake, weed, plant, and spread mulch as part of a class service project.

“It was enjoyable working with the younger generation,” says Mary Ann. “Talking with them and learning about them was interesting.”

Oak Crest Volunteer Coordinator Ann Marie Riehl helped organize the event. She says the residents were impressed by how hard the students worked and how polite they were. “Some students had gardening experience, and others just jumped in and followed instructions,” says Riehl. “But I think everyone had a great time. We hope this will become an annual event.”

Down to earth

Longtime gardener Arianne Regester received help planting a six-foot stake to support a hibiscus in her garden. 

“This is my fifth year growing a garden at Oak Crest,” says Arianne. “I usually make my decision on what to grow based on what the rabbits and deer don’t eat. I have a lot of perennial flowers.” 

Arianne also enjoys container gardening on her apartment patio where she grows geraniums, begonias, and herbs. 

“I always say my enthusiasm is boundless, but my talent is miniscule,” says Arianne. “The reason I garden is because it’s an excuse to stay outside. I love being outdoors. I always say find out what grows well and plant a lot of it. You can’t go wrong with daffodils and daylilies.” 

Arianne once lived in an 1850s farmhouse on 72 acres where she had a large flower garden for cut flowers. “When I was researching the pros and cons of various retirement communities, one of the positive things about Oak Crest was that I would be able to have my own garden,” says Arianne. 

Many Oak Crest residents like Arianne enjoy exercising their green thumbs in the expansive community garden area located near Lake Victoria, a large man-made pond on campus.  

The community features eighty 10- by 10-foot gardens, and six 7- by 7-foot raised planter beds allowing plenty of room for planting everything from strawberries to roses. The gardens are free and available on a first come, first served basis. 

Allan and Mary DeGray grow raspberries, blackberries, and blueberries, as well as tomatoes and flowers in their garden at Oak Crest. They say having the high school kids help out was a huge blessing.

“They did some weeding and helped me plant some daffodils that another gardener gave me while they were thinning out their garden,” says Allan. “It was a great intergenerational opportunity for us to work together.”

Aside from fresh air and cultivating friendships, Allan notes one of the most rewarding elements of gardening: enjoying the fruits of your labor. 

“I garden for the fun of it, but I also enjoy eating what we grow,” says Alan. “I love a good tomato sandwich.”