• Extended Learning Academy Gardens Bring Outdoor Joy to Ventura Seniors - Friday, June 13, 2014 at

  • Suz Montgomery

    Seniors in Ventura who thought their gardening days were over can once again dig in dirt, plant vegetables and eat the vegetables they grew themselves because of the commitment of Suz Montgomery and her Extended Learning Academy. Suz teaches organic kitchen gardening classes for nursing home patients and residents at The Californian convalescent hospital and Coastal View Healthcare Center and to seniors at the Ventura Avenue Adult Center

    Suz says many of the seniors remember Victory Gardens during World War II, when the population was encouraged to grow their own food to help with the war effort. When she first started teaching senior classes 11 years ago, she didn't know what students wanted to learn. She quickly found out that many of her class members were former business professionals and teachers themselves so she needed to find subjects that were stimulating and challenging.

    One day, a student asked if they could plant tomatoes at the Californian's small garden. Suz knew she had her focus and her calling. As a formally trained executive chef coming from an Italian family that owned its own restaurant, she already understood the importance of soil and the benefits of eating organic food. Each week, her students examine the etymology of a food--analyzing its nutrients, determining how it can be best grown and then creating a dish containing the vegetable or herb. "I teach at a graduate school level," explains Suz.

    The gardens have evolved from tomatoes to producing just about everything including artichokes, beans, broccoli, lettuce varieties, eggplant, strawberries, blueberries, all types of herbs, cucumbers, carrots and radishes.

    Some of Suz's students (rehab patients) are as young as 20. Her oldest student is 107. "Gardening is transformative," says Suz. "People are sometimes hesitant to talk, but put them in a garden and in five minutes they open up. A garden brings them back to a better time and a better memory. I find they want to get their hands dirty, they want to feel the soil." Family members even join the classes and work with their loved ones side by side.

    Agromin donates the soil for the planter boxes. In all, 27 business and city partners take part in building and maintaining the gardens. The City of Ventura Fire Department, for example, donated and installed the garden irrigation systems. Lumber for the garden boxes was donated from Ojai Lumber with Ventura's City Corps constructing the boxes. Fiona Dunne of Blackrock Design did all the landscaping, even driving a skip loader--donated by Ventura Rentals. Plants come from the Camarillo Seed Company, "It’s been a community outpouring of love," says Suz. "It's beyond wonderful!"

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