Thursday, March 28, 2013

A garden for the ages at Cuyamaca College

Interested in volunteering at the Cuyamaca College Intergenerational Garden? Contact Amber Hughes at (619) 660-4662 or by email at

When the little sprouts at Cuyamaca College’s Child Development Center sit down for  lunch, they’ll soon be munching fruits and veggies from their very own garden, one they’ll cultivate with the help of local seniors.

For a few hours each week, seven gardening enthusiasts, ages 60 and older, share a little of their know-how with 60 preschoolers tending  a small, practice garden of sorts as they await the installation of a much larger one that the college is calling its Intergenerational Garden. Recently cleared of mountains of mulch and debris that had collected over the years on the vacant site, the 1/3-acre plot between the Child Development Center and the Water Conservation Garden will boast lots of extras, including a nearby amphitheater and a meandering creek bed.

The Child Development Center is a pre-kindergarten daycare facility serving both the college and off-campus communities, and is uniquely suited as an onsite lab for students enrolled in the college’s child development program.

Thanks to donated material and hours, the irrigation system is expected to be completed in April, with planting to be well under way by the garden’s official grand opening at the end of June. The Intergenerational Garden will be a public attraction at Cuyamaca College for everyone to enjoy. With fundraising and corporate sponsorships, an adjacent  community garden is anticipated with dozens of plots for public leasing.

A $25,000 grant from the county’s Health and Human Services Agency helped establish the new garden and
also pays the $100 monthly stipend for the seniors, affectionately called the “Gardening Grannies” by the center’s young inhabitants. The grant ends in June, but to keep the project going, the college is recruiting more volunteers at community and gardening events such as the April 27 Spring Garden Festival hosted by Cuyamaca College and the Water Conservation Garden.

For the children, ages 2-5, the intent is to teach good nutrition to a population accustomed to diets heavy on processed foods. For the seniors, it’s a healthy outdoor activity and a rare opportunity to connect with kids.

Talk about a perfect partnership, this garden is a veritable cross-pollination of learning and fun," Cuyamaca College President Mark J. Zacovic said. "These seniors are experts in gardening and healthy foods, but when it comes to digging in the dirt, or picking the best pumpkins for Halloween, these kids are Ph.Ds.”

Watching the two generations interact, it’s clear the seniors are having as much fun as their young wards. Strolling through the practice garden, they dispense their pearls of wisdom like flower seeds during a planting.

“Today’s kids have little concept of whole foods and eating what’s grown in the garden,” said  Pat Loughlin, a senior recruited from the San Diego Master Gardeners, a troupe of volunteers trained by the University of California Cooperative Extension.  “Ask them where orange juice comes from and they’ll tell you ‘out of the refrigerator.’”    
Volunteer Pat Loughlin with youngsters at Cuyamaca College
To help youngsters gain a rudimentary understanding of good nutrition, the seniors follow a Farm to Preschool curriculum developed by the Urban and Environmental Policy Institute at Occidental College. UEPI’s Farm to Preschool program began as a pilot program in 2009 in a handful of preschools in underserved communities in Los Angeles and San Diego counties. 

By fall, the Intergenerational Garden is expected to flourish with an abundance of citrus and other fruit, a variety of vegetable and flower beds, vines with pumpkins and melons, ornamentals, herbs, and more. The harvest will be incorporated into the children’s menus at the center, with any extras going to their families and the seniors, as well as at a booth at the farmer’s market set up every Saturday at the college.

 “We’re counting on pumpkins by Halloween,” Jennifer Lewis, project coordinator and the college’s interim dean of Continuing Education and Workforce Training, told seniors at a recent update meeting. “This has been a real community effort. Members of the California Conservation Corps and others in the local community helped clear the site, and the San Miguel Fire District has offered to provide the water hose needed during grading. We have further commitments from the Conservation Corps, and Ed Butts Grading, an East County contractor, to prepare the site for spring planting. Also helping with the garden build-out are students enrolled in Cuyamaca College’s surveying and ornamental horticulture programs.”

La Mesa landscape architect George Mercer designed the garden gratis, holding focus group meetings with the community, students, the child development center staff, ornamental horticulture faculty and Water Conservation Garden staff.  The plans that unfolded are impressive: a pumpkin hill with a shade structure and benches; an orchard of fruit trees; an amphitheater with a canvas canopy and surrounding shrubs and boulders; vegetable and flower beds; a farmyard with a shade house, potting bench, a sink with gray-water plumbing; compost bins and picnic benches.

 Also planned are a Three-Sisters Garden, a planting method devised by American Indians to grow corn, squash and beans in one common area; an “enchanted forest” of 150 shrubs and stone seat walls; and a “caterpillar tunnel” with a vine-covered archway, apple trees and mosaic paving.