The garden is so hidden from view of those driving by on County Farm Road in Wheaton that it has come to be known as "The Secret Garden." But to residents of the DuPage County Convalescent Center, the garden is all but a secret -- it's an integral part of their lives.
"It's like almost an oasis when you go out there," resident Edward "Skip" Meyer said. "You don't realize where you are. It's a great chance to get away and enjoy nature out there."
If you goWhat: DuPage County Convalescent Center Garden Walk
When: 1 to 4 p.m. Sunday, July 22
Where: DuPage County Convalescent Center, 400 N. County Farm Road, Wheaton
Info: (630) 665-6400
The center's garden club meets Thursdays and offers residents a chance to tend to their own 6-foot space, where they can grow flowers or plants of their choice. The club also teaches residents about things like garden diseases, herbs and cooking vegetables.
The DuPage County Convalescent Center will give the community a chance to view the work of the center's residents at its second Garden Walk from 1 to 4 p.m. Sunday, July 22.
"I think it would just really be uplifting for them to be able to show off something they take pride in," said Julie Moore, who volunteers at the center and works with residents in the garden. "It is so unexpected what you see there."
The garden club was started some 30 years ago by a woman who worked at the center and noticed there were residents who wanted a space behind the building to garden. Raised garden beds were installed that year so residents in wheelchairs would have the chance to participate.
"The garden allows them to be part of a like-minded community," said Henry Parker, recreation therapy coordinator and garden supervisor. "It builds a base of knowledge. They feel like they're still learning something new."
Parker said the residents enjoy participating in produce contests, which increases their self-esteem.
"A lot of them grow vegetables, and they love to each year enter their vegetables in the county fair," Moore said. "That's something that's really important to them."
Moore said the club members take pride in receiving prize ribbons. But that's not to say they garden only for themselves -- the group also donates extra produce to local food pantries, and last year donated 100 pounds to feed the homeless.
"They feel like they're so often on the receiving end of good deeds, that knowing their work is helping others is really neat for them," Moore said.
Many residents had a former love of gardening, and the club brings a little bit of what they used to do in their home back to them, Moore said.
Meyer, 56, is one such resident. Meyer has participated in the club since coming to the center in September and, for him, gardening is a way to connect with past family traditions.
"My grandma and mom were always gardening when I grew up, so I enjoy being able to go on with that and extend that idea," he said.
Parker said the club gives residents something to share with their families when they visit and has helped them develop close friendships with staff and volunteers. The therapeutic benefits are endless, he says.
"There have been all sorts of studies out there that show that there's a correlation between mental, physical and emotional health and being outside and working outside," Parker said. "Just by being there, it lowers your blood pressure, it calms you."
The center recently received a Quality of Life grant from the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation. The grant funded the Gardening Year Round project, which will extend the garden program to the winter months.
At the heart of the project is the design and installation of a 560-square-foot, wheelchair-accessible Cutting Garden of Everlastings. In this garden, flowers have been planted in separate color rays, with a brick path down the center that allows residents to immerse themselves in the center of the garden.
The garden's flowers will be cut, dried and preserved for use in craft projects during the winter season.
Parker says the Cutting Garden of Everlastings serves another function: to be a more viewable space the community will appreciate.
"With these changes, and how beautiful it's become, what's happening is more and more people are becoming aware of our gardening program," he said. "It's making people aware that we're not just a health facility that gives people medicine. We care about the whole person."
Parker recalls a woman at the center who was very ill. Doctors were worried about her health, but she had a rather different concern.
"She said, 'I have to get better because I have to take care of my garden,'" Parker said.
And, lo and behold, she did -- and the first thing she asked was to be taken out to her garden space.
"It gives them a reason to live, a purpose," Parker said. "It gives them a sense that they belong."