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Five Tips for Gardening for the Mind, Body and Spirit

Garden Café Manager Maggie Thiel knows a thing or two about gardening. A big part of her role at Beacon Hill at Eastgate is growing food from our very own Community Garden for fresh, farm-to-fork dining around campus.

In fact, she’s been involved in the Community Garden’s care since it was planted in 2011 and says “community” is integral to its purpose. She’s witnessed first-hand how the garden has evolved over the years – and how it’s brought people together.

If you’re thinking about starting a home garden or reserving a plot in ours, you’re not alone. Research is showing a growing interest in gardening for a variety of reasons, but we think Maggie sums it up well: “It’s good for the mind, body and spirit.”

To help you get set up for a great growing season, here are a few tips she has to offer.

Gather basic supplies

 At Beacon Hill, we provide all basic garden tools residents and neighbors may need – gloves, pruners, shovels and rakes. An irrigation system helps keep everything watered, although hoses, watering cans and spigots are also available to use.

For someone just venturing into gardening, Maggie suggests starting simple with garden supplies.

“Get a good pair of gloves, a trowel and a shovel and then build your collection for your individual needs from there,” she says. “Kneeling pads, ergonomic hand tools and collapsible stools are also wonderful supplies to have on hand for added comfort.”

Plant what you like 

Sometimes figuring out what to put in your garden can be overwhelming – there are so many options. Maggie’s recommendation is straightforward: Plant what you like!

“If you like tomatoes, plant tomatoes. If you prefer flowers over vegetables, plant flowers,” Maggie advises. “One fun idea we’ve seen plot owners do is a ‘pizza garden’ with basil, oregano, garlic and tomatoes. That’s especially great to do with kids and grandkids.

“Be sure to start small the first year. It’s really easy to say, ‘oh, I want six zucchini plants,’ but six zucchini plants can give around 120 pounds of produce throughout the season, and that’s a lot! Try one of a few plants, and don’t be discouraged if something doesn’t work out.”

Consider low-maintenance plants

If you’re a brand-new gardener and want hardier plants that may be easier to care for, some good “beginner plants” include peas, green beans, wax beans and carrots. In our area, gardeners typically have good luck with lettuce greens, kales, cabbage, tomatoes and herbs, too.

Companion planting is another consideration for a fairly self-sufficient gardening system. This involves planting different plants closely together that enhance each other’s growth and/or protect each other from pests.

If you have room for them, the “three sisters” – beans, corn and squash – are a great example of this, Maggie explains. Beans use corn to trellis, while the squash leaves cover the ground to keep weeds down and corn gets nitrogen from the beans in the soil.

Be proactive with pest control

It’s also good to think about using plants as natural pest control. Marigolds, basil and rosemary are known for keeping rabbits and deer at bay because of their strong scents.

Using landscaping fabric, untreated mulch and straw are other great proactive methods for managing weeds, pests and moisture levels.

Enjoy the process

Maggie’s biggest tip for gardeners both new and seasoned? Don’t put too much pressure on yourselves!

“Just care for your garden daily with whatever amount of time you have,” she says. “If that means you just pull handful of weeds one day, that’s wonderful. Don’t worry about cultivating the most beautiful garden, perfect tomatoes or a big harvest. The point is to enjoy it and keep at it.”

Planting for our kitchens

As for Maggie’s gardening plans for Beacon Hill, she intends to have a variety of heirloom and conventional tomatoes this year, as well as cabbages and greens, cucumbers, peppers, zucchini, summer squash, eggplant, herbs and fruits. Flowers are also in the mix to adorn dining tables and serve as colorful garnishes. Hanging baskets are up and filled with violas, nasturtiums and snap peas to attract pollinators.

“Our Summer Café menu as well as some food-centric programming will heavily reflect the bounty we are able to coax from the garden,” she says. “Tomatoes and fresh basil will pop up in sandwiches and on salads. The daily specials are the best reflection of what is harvestable for a given week.

“Over the next couple of weeks, we will begin to see our strawberries fruiting as they are currently a carpet of tiny blooms. Things look to be on track to have a great apple harvest as well!”

Residents and staff can also take part in Beacon Hill’s community supported agriculture, or CSA, shares if they would like to enjoy the responsibly grown fresh fruit, vegetables and flowers from the garden delivered in a special tote bag to their doorsteps. Those who are interested may pick up an application in the service suite and return to the Concierge.

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Beacon Hill at Eastgate is a distinctive, not-for-profit retirement community located in Grand Rapids’ desirable Eastgate neighborhood.

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