How a former principal cultivates Wheaton nursing home's huge 'secret garden' full of lessons
Retired school principal Linda Kunesh has been tending to a garden at a DuPage County nursing home for more than a decade.
In many ways, the therapeutic garden at the DuPage Care Center has become a teaching space.
Every Thursday from May through September, Kunesh and other trained volunteers ring a bell at about 10:15 a.m., make their morning announcements and share weekly lessons with the nursing home's residents.
They learn how to deal with plant diseases and the occasional pest and how to grow herbs and vegetables -- tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, carrots, you name it -- in their own garden beds at the Care Center.
Some residents are visually impaired, so Kunesh accentuates the tactile experience of gardening. Others have no use of their hands. If they have a doctor's appointment or can't work in the garden that week, another resident, a friend of theirs, will pitch in to help and harvest their crop.
"We make whatever accommodations we need to make," said Kunesh, 71, still a teacher at heart.
When everything outside looks bare and gray, Kunesh is preparing for a busy spring. Good gardening is all about patience -- "and a lot of hope," Kunesh said. She acquired those lessons from her mom, Grace, who went to work in a greenhouse when her husband died in his 40s.
"She was not into vegetable gardening," said Kunesh, who grew up in Elmhurst with her three siblings and now lives in Carol Stream. "She liked her flowers, especially her little dahlias."
Grace Kunesh decided, on her own terms, to move into the Care Center in 2014. She valued her independence, but in the last years of her life, she needed long-term medical care and found a sanctuary in the garden at the Wheaton nursing home.
Grace Kunesh would sit in the garden every day, with a book or a word search puzzle, surrounded by her little dahlias. She died at 93 four years ago.
"She was a spitfire," her daughter said.
You could say Linda Kunesh takes after her mom.
"She's so conscientious and so caring and passionate," Janelle Chadwick, the Care Center's administrator, said of Linda. "And if she wants something done, like a tree moved or garbage picked up, she's like a dog with a bone. She won't let it go."
Her passion goes a long way. What started as a modest in-ground garden has blossomed into a 12,000-square-foot world of horticultural beauty that has received awards and thousands of dollars in grants.
"It's just taken on a life of its own," Chadwick said.
Seeds of community
Affectionately known as the "secret garden," it's tucked behind the county-owned campus. A dozen rows of raised beds make gardening accessible to people who use wheelchairs or walkers. A garden post reminds visitors that it's a place to "restore, reflect, rejuvenate."
"Some of these residents are dealing with such major medical issues," Kunesh said. "This gives them a time to kind of forget about what their ailments are."
More than 60 volunteers in the master gardener corps, a group trained by a University of Illinois Extension program, offer their expertise and physical labor. Kunesh has been their team leader since 2011.
"The orientation of the master gardeners and what they go through, it's very structured," Chadwick said.
Structured, well-organized -- sounds like a classroom, right?
Kunesh is a former special education teacher and principal of the Independence Center for Early Learning in Elgin Area School District U-46. The Bartlett preschool serves students with and without disabilities.
"It was just wonderful to see kids together and learning together rather than in isolated classes," Kunesh said. "There were many years where special education isolated the kids away from other kids."
Now, she's reducing feelings of isolation in seniors. With 368 licensed beds, the center provides long-term care and short-term rehabilitative services for hundreds of patients, most of whom have Medicaid.
"One of the best things about this garden program is that we developed a community of gardeners," Kunesh said.
That community stuck together during the darkest days of the pandemic.
When residents went into quarantine, master gardeners kept planting and published tips in "The Secret Garden Gazette." Copies of the newsletter were delivered to each resident gardener. Employees of the Care Center even read articles aloud over the PA system.
"This provided a wonderful opportunity to still connect them to what was going on in the garden," Kunesh said.
A beautiful bounty
The numbers behind the garden operation are staggering: Master gardeners have volunteered 23,475 hours to the DuPage Care Center from 2009 through 2022.
Kunesh has generated support for the garden with her grant applications. The Bloomingdale Garden Club -- she's a member -- has donated more than $4,000 in flowers since 2012. For decades, Prosek's Greenhouse in Winfield has donated vegetables and herbs.
During the 2022 season, 55 resident gardeners, all with their own 15-square-foot plots, planted vegetables and flowers of their choice.
Resident gardeners sell nutritious produce and floral arrangements at a mini farmers market set up in a hallway, with the money raised funding their end-of-season luncheon in September. They also donate produce to the People's Resource Center food pantry in Wheaton.
Chadwick buys bouquets to brighten up employee desks.
"The way they put them in vases and arrange them, it's just gorgeous," she said.
A garden planted in 2020 with bee balm and about 80 other kinds of pollinators should be more beautiful than ever next summer.
"You know what they say about perennials? First year they sleep, second year they creep, third year they leap," Kunesh said.
But this time of year, she gives a gardening lesson in gratitude.
"To be able to work with these wonderful people, the residents, the master gardeners, the staff, I cannot say enough about the quality of the people that gather there to garden."