Seniors grow friendships, veggies in community garden

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

WEST ORANGE, NJ — Tomatoes, corn, herbs and a variety of flowers are growing in the Nicholas Vecchio Memorial UNICO Garden at Degnan Park, all thanks to the West Orange senior citizens who have put their gardening skills to the test this year. The garden is a space where seniors can cultivate their green thumb; each has bed full of crops that will make their way into salads this summer. This is the first year that the garden is a senior-specific program, and gardeners gathered at the park for a session to tend to their plants on June 21.

“UNICO donated this garden, which was originally going to be a special needs garden,” Mayor Robert Parisi said in an interview with the West Orange Chronicle on June 21. “It fell out of use, and this was a way to give the seniors an opportunity to do some planting.”

UNICO is a national nonprofit organization that promotes Italian culture and celebrates Italian-Americans; it has a thriving chapter in Orange and West Orange. The senior citizen gardening program is just one initiative of many by UNICO in the township.

In the garden, after seniors signed up for a space, they were given assistance in choosing their plants by the Rutgers Master Gardeners of Essex County, a volunteer group run by the Rutgers University New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station. The Master Gardeners work with the West Orange seniors twice a month.

“We only set out to do this about a month ago, and thanks to some help from the Master Gardeners and the experienced gardeners in town, it happened,” Parisi said.

Hannah Attermann is a novice gardener who is taking advantage of the Degnan Park garden. As she grew up in a city, she never had a chance to plant anything. She moved to West Orange from Livingston about five years ago, and now has a chance to grow her own vegetables.

“I’m here about every other day,” Attermann said in an interview with the Chronicle on June 21. “They made it as easy as possible to plant. All you have to do is plop the plants in. I guess I got good advice, because everything is growing.”

Attermann’s garden is full of leafy plants that, sooner or later, will be giving her four different types of tomatoes, as well as corn, basil, oregano and green beans. She plans to share the wealth.

“I thought I would garden when I had a yard in Livingston, but it wasn’t until I moved to West Orange that I started,” Attermann, who now lives in an apartment, joked. “I heard about this and I thought, ‘That’s got my name all over it.’”

Debbie Bogstahl also plans to share the vegetables she’s growing. She works with Toni’s Kitchen, a soup kitchen in Montclair affiliated with St. Luke’s Episcopal Church. When Bogstahl picks extra peppers, eggplant, lettuce and basil from her garden, she’ll be donating them.

“I’ve lived in West Orange for 30 years and couldn’t have a vegetable garden because I didn’t have enough sunlight, so this is great,” Bogstahl said in an interview with the Chronicle on June 21.

Patti Duffy, West Orange’s Senior Citizen Program aide, said vegetables aren’t all that is coming out of the senior garden. The 14 residents taking part in the program have also forged friendships while weeding and watering.

“They help each other out,” Duffy said in an interview with the Chronicle on June 21. “If someone can’t come and water, they coordinate. Working with the Master Gardeners is great too.”

Duffy said the UNICO garden was perfectly set up to be a senior garden. There is access to water, and the nearby Toby Katz Community Center has gardening supplies like hoses and shovels. Several of the gardening beds are raised to wheelchair height for those who have a passion for weeding but can’t get on their hands and knees.

“I heard what they were thinking of doing, and we wanted to help in any way we could to make it successful,” Joan Kram, one of the three Master Gardener volunteers who work in West Orange, said in an interview with the Chronicle on June 21. Kram is a 30-year veteran of the organization, after receiving her associate’s degree in horticulture from Bergen County College.

“We’re here two Thursdays a month, making sure there is moisture, and helping to plant and control bugs,” she said. “We also have a helpline, so you can call and ask ‘Why is my tomato plant wilting?’ and we’ll help you. There was such a good reaction that this should continue, someone suggested that we plant cold weather plants. There really isn’t a time when gardens are dormant.”

Duffy is hoping to get more seniors gardening and to expand the program, a collaboration between the health and recreation departments. The fact that the park is only a stone’s throw away from West Orange High School is also a benefit, she said. Next year she wants to start an intergenerational program between WOHS students and the seniors, so they can work together in the garden.

“I hope everyone is excited about it,” Duffy said. “In an apartment, there’s not an opportunity for a garden, so this gives them that opportunity. Several people know others who want to get involved. It was just lying here dormant, so it made sense to take over the maintenance. This seems to appeal to everyone.”

The Master Gardeners are looking for volunteers; to become involved, call 973-228-2210 or visit

Photos by Amanda Valentovic