Fruits of their labor

Garden Club members grow lemon cucumbers and strawberries in their raised-bed garden at Silverado.

Evoking happy memories from the soil, a unique gardening program created by horticultural therapist and Master Gardener Catherine Schoonmaker helps seniors cultivate pleasant old times and new experiences.  Known as the “garden lady” by residents at Silverado Peoria Memory Care Community, Schoonmaker shares her expertise and passion to bring a sense of achievement, social interaction and fun from seed to table.

Last week, the Garden Club was beginning the transition from spring to summer gardening. Schoonmaker, who took a year of study in horticulture therapy, helps the residents set goals every week. She encourages them to reminisce, and the handling of plants works on fine and motor skills. Those individuals with arthritis rejuvenate their motor skills as they are planting. It is also helpful toward maintaining eye and hand coordination.

“A lot of horticulture therapists work with veterans back from war to help with post-war jobs,” Schoonmaker said. “Individuals under stress, horticultural therapy helps reduce it. With seniors, it builds endurance – pouring water, walking.”

Each week club members gather with Schoonmaker to tend their four raised-bed gardens at the center of the community. Watermelon, cantaloupe, pumpkins, beets, carrots, tomatoes, peppers, rosemary, lavender, sunflowers, snap dragon and marigold are just some of the crops. One member, Tom,  has gardened his whole life and this year hopes to grow corn and eggplant. Residents not only enjoy their own fresh cuisine, flowers are used to create herb aroma packets, floral arrangements and put in a flower press to make colorful laminate holiday gifts. During October, the residents stuff pumpkins with flowers.

Schoonmaker’s Garden Club members average 80-plus years in age, and were youngsters during the Depression. So, they learned how to grow much of their own food.

“Those long-term memories and some wonderful stories come out as they reconnect with the land,” Schoonmaker said.  “From seeding, watering and weeding to harvest, the purposeful activities bring joy and literally take them back to their roots.”

Schoonmaker grew up gardening in Pennsylvania with her grandmother and mother.  She moved to the Phoenix area and became a member of the Desert Botanical Gardens and conducts science-based tours for children during the school year. Earning a certificate in Desert Landscaping, she began volunteering in the Gardens’ horticultural department, and received her Master Gardener certificate through Maricopa Extension Office. This past September, she helped start the Garden Club to help people with dementia enjoy more fulfilling lives.

Her father suffered from Alzheimer’s and her mother is a resident at Silverado. She has a personal connection that shows while she is working with her Garden Club members. Although they may not complete a planting project exactly the way she does, Schoonmaker is patient.

“It’s not the end result; it’s the content,” she said.

Silverado Peoria is at 13391 N. 94th Drive. To learn more, visit, or call 866-522-8125.

Editor Carolyn Dryer contributed to this article.