When Noreen Thomas’s mother moved into a facility for the elderly, most of her needs were met. The staff helped her manage the daily tasks that many older folks have a hard time managing, and her safety was assured. But still, something was missing.

“She was an avid gardener,” says Thomas, an Organic Valley co-op farmer-owner who runs Doubting Thomas Farm near Moorhead, Minnesota. “Now she sat and looked out her window. A big part of her life was gone. I thought, we’re going to do something—we’re going to go outside and dig dirt.”

Thus was born the kernel of the idea that has become Garden-Able, a small, wheelchair accessible farm plot on the Thomas farm designed to give people of all abilities the opportunity to grow—and eat—healthy and vibrant organic produce.

“It’s an unmet need, nationwide. Most elders in assisted living have farmed or gardened their whole life. If you take that away, you take away part of their independence.”

The garden got its start with a $6,000 grant from The Gifted Learning Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to providing opportunities for people of various abilities.

But part of the beauty of the project is that it’s an intentionally low-budget affair. Much of Garden-Able’s infrastructure comes from the Thomases’ “bone pile” of cast-off farm junk. A leaky rain barrel is repurposed to serve as a raised bed; a pile of cinderblocks functions as another.

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“The idea is that the garden can be duplicated,” says Thomas, who has donated not only reusable materials, but the land, seeds, water, and a good deal of time to the project. “It’s inexpensive to create, so anyone can re-create it.”

And, in fact, the idea has begun to spread. Two area schools are adapting the program for their students, thanks in part to Garden-Able’s relationship with area schools. “The students were our volunteer helper bees,” she says. “Most had never been on a farm.”

The product of any organic garden, of course, is a crop of vital, nutritious, and tasty vegetables—something that young and old alike are less likely to find in an institutional setting. So the educational aspect of Garden-Able extends beyond the time spent planting to the time spent tasting.

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“You get something plopped on your tray, and you don’t even know what it is,” says Thomas. Garden-Able participants, by contrast, know exactly where their food comes from, since they planted it themselves.

Because Garden-Able operates on a shoestring budget, contributions to the all-volunteer organization go a long way. Currently, Thomas is seeking support via Facebook (click the “Donate Now” button at the top of the page) and online donations, and has also set up an account with the Amazon Smile program benefiting the Gifted Learning Project.

For Thomas’s mother, and other elderly people living in institutions, the benefits are obvious. “It’s very hard to be depressed when you’re in the garden,” she says.

Soil is not just a place to grow food – it holds memories. Read about Buddy Huffaker’s journey to Aldo Leopold’s Land Ethic

Or hear about another special gardening project, GROW La Crosse, on Rootstock Radio.