Community gardens allow retired green thumbs to continue growing

You don’t have to give up your favorite pastime when you move to Oak Crest

Created date

May 24th, 2019
Oak Crest community members and sophomores from Rosedale Baptist School work together in a spring garden cleanup on campus.

Oak Crest community members and sophomores from Rosedale Baptist School work together in a spring garden cleanup on campus.

Every spring, as soon as the weather breaks, you’ll find Don Keyser and dozens of his neighbors tending to their gardens at Oak Crest, the 87-acre Erickson Living community located in Parkville, Md. It’s a hobby that Don acquired out of necessity as a boy growing up in rural western Pennsylvania and has stuck with him over the years. 

“I grew up around the Second World War, and everyone had Victory Gardens. It was a patriotic thing to do, and we had quite an extensive garden,” says Don. “Early on, my dad started me with a row of peas or beans, and I worked alongside him. But I had my own section that was my responsibility. I used to take some of the produce and go down the street and sell it.”

Victory Gardens were promoted by the United States Department of Agriculture during World War II to help reduce the drain on the public food supply. Today, Don and his fellow gardeners at Oak Crest have bounties so plentiful, they are happy to share the fruits (and vegetables) of their labor.

“We have a basket on a picnic table by the shed where gardeners put extra stuff from their gardens for people to take,” says Don. “It disappears quickly. I’ve put stuff in there in the morning, and by lunchtime, it’s gone.”

Garden variety

Oak Crest features 70, 10- by 10-foot gardens and a handful of 7- by 7-foot raised beds allowing plenty of room for planting everything from strawberries to roses. The gardens are free and available on a first-come-first-serve basis.

Don has two gardens where he plants lilies, daffodils, tomatoes, lettuce, beets, string beans, and anything else he can squeeze in.

“I usually plant too much. But no one ever turns down a Maryland tomato. It never goes to waste,” says Don.

To assist gardeners, the Oak Crest grounds department provides mulch, compost, peat moss, water, and one free tilling each year. A garden shed is also available for storing tools. Don adds his own special ingredient, organic matter, to his garden.

“I take stuff from my kitchen—things like lettuce leaves, egg shells, and banana peels—out to my garden, dig a hole and bury it,” says Don. “I think it helps and loosens the soil up. It seems to grow things well.”

Husband and wife Walter Gran and Diane Prather each have their own garden. Diane grows vegetables. Walter prefers tropical plants. Together, with help from fellow gardener Lois Siemsen, they started a community herb garden.

“Lois and I have an empty garden plot in between us, so last year, we decided to make it into an herb garden,” says Diane. “We bought annuals like a bay tree, parsley, basil, dill, sweet marjoram, oregano, and sage. The perennials are from our garden at our former house in Timonium where our kids now live. I brought over a lot of herbs like chamomile, chives, fennel, lavender, lovage, rosemary, thyme, and tarragon.”

A handmade ceramic sign by Diane which reads, ‘O.C.V. Herb Garden, Help Yourself But Leave Some For Others!’ encourages Oak Crest residents to pick their own herbs from the community garden.

“Herbs grow like crazy, and the more they are picked, the thicker and healthier they get,” says Diane. “We are there about three times a week. Herbs prefer dry soil and don’t require a lot of fertilizer, so the plants don’t need too much attention. A lot of people use the herb garden which surprises me because not too many people who live here still cook.”

Cover a lot of ground

Don is the head of the Garden Club at Oak Crest who, along with a team of volunteers, oversees the gardens, community greenhouse, and nature trail.

“We put out a newsletter every month, and we also have speakers and programs on campus,” says Don.

In the spring, the Garden Club invites local high school students for a day of hands-on learning helping residents as they prepare their gardens by turning the soil over, weeding, and mulching.

“It’s very beneficial for these young people. Some of them have never gotten their hands muddy. Some of them have never picked up a worm. And some have never had the chance to be around older people. It’s a very positive experience for everyone.”

As the growing season gets in full swing, Don tries to get out to his garden at least a couple of hours every day.

“It’s a great excuse to get outside, get some fresh air, and a little bit of sunshine,” says Don. “It’s also a great place to meet other gardeners and see what they are growing. There’s something about being out in a garden that makes people come together and talk.”