KRAGNES, Minn. – The Thomas farm is a breath of fresh air.
At the organic farm 12 miles north of Moorhead, seniors and people of all abilities can pick vegetables, feel soft grass on their feet and gaze at picturesque fields now because of an accessible new garden.
Garden-Able is built to accommodate wheelchairs, walkers and weakening muscles so anyone can enjoy gardening. With a $6,000 grant from The Gifted Learning Project, a national nonprofit that celebrates people of all abilities, 18-year-old Grant Zastoupil, of Fargo, developed the garden with help from Doubting Thomas Farms' Noreen Thomas. The grant covered his summer internship pay, and most of the garden's goods were donated by local greenhouses or upcycled from the Thomas farm.
The half-acre large garden honors The Gifted Learning Project's goal of emphasizing strengths that individuals use to adapt so they feel more confident in accomplishing everyday tasks, Zastoupil says.
"Garden-Able plays into that because it's a garden for all abilities," he says. "Our dream for it is to be something anyone can use, regardless of what their abilities are, whether they're confined to a wheelchair or not."
Gardening typically requires a lot of bending, so Zastoupil and Thomas brainstormed ways to plant herbs, vegetables and flowers so they'd be easily reachable from a chair.
Varieties of mint grow in a tractor rim fashioned into a raised herb garden. A cinder block structure hosts tomato plants, cabbage and flowers that are conveniently reached from the central space that fits a wheelchair. Short rows of sunflowers will grow 5 feet tall to surround a red table, creating a "sunflower hut" where people can sit and pot plants or relax.
Beans, cucumbers and peppers are trellised, creating an arch that will soon host purple, scarlet and yellow blooms. Once the fruit appears, garden visitors can pluck it seated or standing.
Near the trellis, a 55-gallon drum acts as a giant planter, drilled with holes where strawberries and Tumbling Tom variety tomatoes spill out.
"It's visually stimulating, fun and refreshing," Zastoupil says.
To the side of the barrel, zinnias grow near a patch of soft wheat grass. While the grass might seem odd in the middle of a garden, Zastoupil says it can spark feel-good sensations.
"Oftentimes seniors and others who live at facilities aren't allowed to go barefoot. The idea is to have their shoes off and stimulate that part of their body," he says. "It's more freedom for them, more independence."
The zinnias, along with pumpkins, will be cut and gifted to local assisted living and nursing homes, like Serenity Assisted Living. Residents from the Dilworth, Minn., facility have visited Doubting Thomas Farms multiple times.
For many of the people, it's like taking a trip home, says Denise Tollefson with Serenity Assisted Living, who will take residents to the new garden in August.
"We can play all the bingo we want and make doilies and have quilting clubs, but the whole culture that generation grew up with, whether they lived on a farm or didn't, it seems they can relate to the general farm life," she says.
Sometimes, it's tricky to encourage residents to go to places, but it's never difficult to get them to go to the Thomas farm, Tollefson says.
The outings conjure memories of farm life and engage senses that might otherwise be forgotten. The experiences are documented with photographs so residents can show their families what they've been up to. And, it helps them create a sense of community within the facility, Tollefson says.
"Weeks later, they can still be having conversations with each other because they see the photos," she says.
Zastoupil and Thomas hope Garden-Able becomes a spot for experiences and conversation. They want other assisted living and nursing homes, schools, homeowners, anyone, to steal the garden ideas and create their own.
"It's really about sharing. We want people to copy it and make it better," Thomas says.
Tollefson hasn't put the farm garden visit on Serenity's calendar yet, but she knows once it hits the bulletin board, residents will look forward to their day in the country.
"When you're sitting in your chair watching TV all day, it's easy to become depressed," she says. "It's kind of the old saying, fresh air does you good. It really does."