A Return To Their Roots
At a Silver Spring Retirement Community, A Renewed Love of Gardening Blooms

By Adrian Higgins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 12, 2008

Levern Allen's daily exercise consists of a rigorous three-mile walk, but not before she checks out her garden. The lavender is coming into bloom, the peppers finally seem to have shrugged off the cold and last year's parsley might need to be replaced.

Such considerations are fairly typical for gardeners in late spring, but what makes Allen's experience unusual is that when she uprooted herself from her Silver Spring home in 2003 after her husband died, she thought she would hang up her trowel for good.

She moved to Riderwood, a large, modern retirement community in Silver Spring, and was coaxed back into gardening by a cadre of new friends and neighbors who have found a fresh lease on life in the sandbox of a two-acre community garden.

Encircled by a high black mesh fence to ward off deer, the garden is defined by 167 plots, each unique to its owner's tastes and interests. Some are wildly colorful, brimming with iris, salvias and other spring flowering perennials. Others are no-nonsense mini-farms planted with young tomato and pepper plants. How many of these simple seedlings, you wonder, are personal touchstones to places and people long gone?

And yet the atmosphere is not one of nostalgic gestures, but of a community garden as vital and forward-looking as any other. Many of the gardeners are doing more digging, planting and weeding than at any time in their lives.

Allen, a retired speech pathologist, is 73, a tad younger than the average age of Riderwood's 2,800 residents. The community opened in 2000 on a 120-acre campus close to the Capital Beltway and Route 29.

Her garden is a mix of flowers, vegetables and herbs, and as the season progresses and things grow, she has to step in as an umpire. "It gets a little crowded and a little grumpy as time goes on. The black-eyed Susans just spread, and so has the bee balm, so it requires a lot of attention. But that's fun."

One of the most distinctive plots belongs to 84-year-old John Worthington, a retired Department of Agriculture research horticulturist and a World War II combat engineer. He has used both skills to fashion a large, wooden greenhouselike frame to protect his blueberry patch from marauding birds. The creation of this garden and its components would have been a major project for a gardener half his age. Worthington took two years to build the frame, prepare the soil and plant the fruit garden. Screened with mesh, it is 12 feet wide and 20 feet long.

He cut the lumber and painted it on his third-floor apartment balcony and then carted the wood to the site for assembly. Painted a cheerful blue-violet, it includes a row of central steppingstones between two ranks of blueberry bushes now reaching more than five feet tall and heavy with ripening fruit. Each of the 12 bushes has a buried gravel pipe that Worthington uses to direct water and acidifying fertilizer directly to the blueberries' famously thirsty roots. The garden also features strawberry plants within the frame and, on the exterior, 12-inch beds of perennials and bulbs.

He spends as much as six hours a day here, in part to make sure that any birds that get in are released. "I might get a small wren in there, and it takes me a while to get him out of there," he said. He has decorated it with various ornaments, including a little windmill and wind chimes that you duck to avoid as you walk within the frame.

Judy Kneen, 72, has a particularly colorful garden that she has planted to attract butterflies, either as nectar-feeding adults or leaf-eating caterpillars. Golden yarrow was coming into bloom recently as the indigo spikes of salvia began to fade. A robust red-hot-poker plant is sending up its torchlike blooms, and marigolds have begun their season-long display.

In a few bare spots, she has planted a variety of herbs, including rosemary, parsley, thyme and basil. "It's all an adventure for me," said Kneen, who taught mathematics at Montgomery College.

The gardeners at Riderwood and at other retirement communities across Washington belong to a generation that was born when there was still a much closer societal link to agriculture. They may not have all grown up on a farm, but their parents probably raised fruits and vegetables to put food on the table during the Depression and, later, in World War II.

Levern Allen grew up in the District, "but my parents always had a garden and a farm in North Carolina," where she would spend summers.

Worthington, orphaned early and raised by extended family, said he has been gardening since he was 9.

Robert Krebs, a 74-year-old retired meteorologist and chairman of Riderwood's garden club, said his father had a large garden in the country, and Krebs remembers his father letting him plow it with a horse when he was a young boy. Even when they moved to a suburban home, they raised chickens, and when Krebs went off to college, his father returned to the country. There, his father built a fallout shelter that eventually became a cellar for the wine he would make from his garden. "It was always fun to come back from college," Krebs said. "He made wine from asparagus, all kinds of things. Some we poured out."

In spite of their connection to the land, many of the garden club members never anticipated a return to it during this stage in their lives, but they're glad they did.

Judy Kneen recalls her family's victory garden when she was a girl, but she lived most of her life in an apartment and never grew things on the scale that she does now. When she moved to Riderwood and saw the garden, "I said, 'I'll take up gardening and give up golf.' "

Some community gardens have strict policies that say keep plots weeded or you're out. But here it's a case of looking out for others, especially if a gardening buddy is laid up. "There's a lot of helping and sharing," Allen said.

When Allen moved to Riderwood five years ago, she was lured to the garden by "a catchy advertisement" posted by the garden club, she said. The members told her that plenty of plots were available, "so I said, 'Okay.' "

Since then, "I've never regretted a single moment," she said. "I have met such marvelous people."

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