By Virginia A. Smith
Inquirer Staff Writer
Philadelphia Corporation for Aging
Nun Preap at Our Lady of Hope Church last year in Logan, where he and other seniors cultivate a "refugee garden."
In just a few weeks, dozens of hardy lettuce, kale, and spinach seedlings will go into the still-chilled ground at Our Lady of Hope Church in Logan, marking the start of a remarkable garden's second season.
It is remarkable not so much for the crops grown, though some are unusual. It's more the growers, themselves a hardy bunch.
They're 65 to 85 years old, survivors of repression, poverty, war, and displacement in their home countries of Vietnam, Cambodia, and China. As different as their languages and narratives may be, however, they have one important thing in common:
They were farmers, field workers, or gardeners living off the land in earlier lives, skills that lay fallow in the years between then and now.
"Being in Philadelphia, there is not much land for them," says Da Lam, a Cambodian refugee who works part time as translator and unofficial social worker for the gardeners and others at a senior center run by the Nationalities Service Center (NSC) in another church, about 10 blocks from the garden. (The nonprofit NSC, based in Center City, works with refugees.)
And so, like foreign-born newcomers all over the country, they've created a community garden for themselves, one that offers all the usual benefits - camaraderie, fresh air and exercise, delicious vegetables - and then some.
Refugee gardens, as these projects are called, also "become a way for people to express who they are in terms of national identity or cultural identity. The gardens can be a source of pride," says Amy Stitely, an urban planner at M.I.T.'s Community Innovators Lab, who has studied refugee gardens in Boise, Idaho; Lewiston, Maine; Lowell, Mass.; and Utica, N.Y.
The Logan gardeners, who include some American-born seniors, have 42 densely planted, raised beds tucked into three plots on the lawns of Our Lady of Hope.
There, as city traffic roared up North Broad Street last summer, they quietly cultivated organic bitter melon, which looks like a warty cucumber and is a mainstay of Asian cuisine; tomatoes, greens, bok choy, and other Chinese cabbages; peppers of all kinds; and popular culinary herbs like Italian and Thai basil, chives, mint, lemongrass, and rosemary.
Every morning, Seng Hay, the senior center cook, would survey the garden, see what looked good, and plan her lunch menus accordingly.
"She made simple, fresh meals. Delicious," recalls Tara Schwartzendruber-Landis, the center's program director, who rounded up a $27,000 nutrition grant from the state to build the garden.
One memorable meal destined to be repeated this summer consisted of a fresh green salad with heirloom tomatoes and steamed fish topped with a Southeast Asian salsa. Another treat: Hay's spicy Cambodian stew made with green vegetables. She also cooks with eggplants, bitter melon, Chinese cabbages, and the leaves of tomatoes and peppers, which she insists sauté up like spinach.
"I use almost everything in my dishes. Even Vietnamese and Chinese like it," says Hay, who, with Lam interpreting, explains that she left the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh in 2001.
Fourteen years earlier, Lam and his parents, brother, and sister also fled Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge genocide was officially over, but Lam says his father, a teacher, had been accused of being a spy.
After 23 days on the run, sometimes through mine fields, Lam says his family made it to a refugee camp in Thailand. A Lutheran church sponsored their resettlement in Camden in 1994.
Now 30, Lam is the youthful exception to this gray-haired gardening group, which he came upon by chance.
Several years ago, he dropped his mother-in-law off at the senior center, housed in the basement of Holy Trinity Bethlehem Presbyterian Church, only to discover that no one on the staff spoke Khmer. So he began volunteering, eager to help people whose stories he understood.
A former Marine who served in Iraq and who hopes to graduate from La Salle University this spring, Lam helped get the seniors' garden up and running. Like them, his growing experience was a while ago now. But he was no greenhorn.
"My mom was a farmer. She worked in a rice paddy," he says, "and I used to help her grow vegetables."
Schwartzendruber-Landis also was no neophyte. She grew up on a farm in Indiana, worked one summer on an organic farm in Michigan, and even now, at her Overbrook home, she plants according to the phases of the moon and the Farmers' Almanac.
The idea for the Logan garden actually came from the seniors, but there was no land at the center. Schwartzendruber-Landis mentioned this to the pastor at Our Lady of Hope - he's Filipino, and a gardener himself - and he offered the church lawn.
Schwartzendruber-Landis snared her grant, rounded up a crew of volunteers who put in about 1,000 hours, and contacted David Green, president of Primex Garden Center in Glenside. He sold her tools, soil, and mulch, along with regular raised beds and elevated, ergonomic ones that, at 32 inches high, are more accessible to seniors and those with handicaps.
Green calls the pace and volume of his garden deliveries "all rather extraordinary," and by the end, he says, "I was tripping over myself to help Tara."
Whatever it takes, it's worth it, says Raechel Hammer, chief operating officer at Klein & Stiffel Jewish Community Centers in Philadelphia, who promotes community gardens in senior centers.
Although seniors may initially protest that they can't bend, lift, or stand anymore, she says, there's something for almost everyone to do in - and get from - a garden. Gardening can increase strength and flexibility, promote restful sleep and healthy appetite, as well as help prevent diabetes, osteoporosis, and heart disease.
"Gardening is nontraditional therapy. It's good for health and mental health," Hammer says, citing the stresses many seniors face from living alone, having money and health problems, and, in the case of immigrants, not speaking English.
Last year's garden "therapy session" lasted until mid-December, when the last of the cabbages and greens were harvested. Over the winter, Schwartzendruber-Landis has been mulling the lessons of that first season and thinking about her second.
She hopes to invite school groups to the garden, share raised beds with other nonprofits, and encourage mental-health organizations that work with immigrants to host actual garden-therapy sessions there.
Other ideas she's considering: adding a medicinal herb bed, since many immigrants use herbal remedies; and compiling a garden-to-table cookbook, with the seniors' recipes, to raise money.
With donations and seedlings provided by Primex, the Growers Alliance of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, and others, season No. 2 of the Logan garden is on track to debut in early March.
Once that happens, the 10 languages spoken at the senior center will, once again, dissolve into one in the garden. Most of it will be unspoken, understood by all.
Contact garden writer Virginia A. Smith at 215-854-5720 or firstname.lastname@example.org .