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Gardening at The Esquiline: A Resident Story

 close to god while gardening in retirement

“Gardens are not made by singing ‘Oh, how beautiful,’ and sitting in the shade.”

—Rudyard Kipling

Why garden?

Carol B., a resident at The Esquiline, doesn’t need to think long before she has an answer for that question.

“I used to have this little framed thing that said ‘I’m never closer to God than when I’m in my garden.’ And I think that’s true,” Carol said. “Gardening brings you peace and solitude, and satisfaction when you’re able to nurture a plant.”

Carol, 77, moved to The Esquiline in March of 2017 with her husband, Don. Here’s how she’s been able to pursue her love of gardening alongside other green thumbs at the Belleville, Illinois retirement community.

Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed—and Something Grew

Carol and her husband, Don, decided to move to The Esquiline in 2017. They were both enjoying making new friends and settling into the community rhythm when, a month and a half in, the unexpected happened. Don fell ill and needed emergency surgery. His recovery seemed to be going well, but he developed an internal infection and passed away a few months later.

During Don’s illness, Carol saw the community rally around her.

“I had so much support from staff and residents when he was in the hospital, even when I was new. I wouldn’t have had that at home,” she said. “I would have had neighbors and my local church, but not living with me in a close kind of sense.”

Before he passed away, Don had asked something of Martha Holloway, Director of Sales and Marketing at The Esquiline.

“Don had talked to Martha about me and she promised that she would try to give me activities and be sure I was pursuing the things I’m interested in,” Carol said.

Those interests, as she explained, are photography and gardening. Carol has a Bachelor of Journalism in news-editorial and photojournalism, and a Bachelor of Arts in history. She fell in love with photography at a young age and says that The Esquiline offers plenty of photo-worthy subjects.

“The environment here is just so beautiful,” she said. “There are big oak trees and wonderful courtyards, and that was something that captured my heart when we first toured here.”


Related: 6 Gorgeous Photos from The Esquiline Grounds


Two Green Thumbs Meet

Carol is also a lifelong gardener, and that’s something that she’s been able to explore at The Esquiline alongside Marion M., another serious gardener living at the community.

It was Carol’s husband, Don, who introduced the two green thumbs.

“My husband Don, getting out and about, met Marion and told me there was another gardener here, ‘you’ve got to talk to her.’ So we’ve kind of teamed up,” she said.

When Carol met her, Marion was working on an idea for an outdoor area residents frequently walked by that was, in Carol’s words, a little dull. Marion’s plan was to tear up the yews that were currently growing in the area and replace them with an L-shaped bed for planting. Some of the maintenance staff at The Esquiline broke out the tractor and turned their plan into reality.

But what to plant? As it turns out, they had plenty of contributions to work with. Carol is a member of a few gardening clubs in the St. Louis area and members generously donated plants. Marion bought vegetables and some flowers with funds provided by The Esquiline. One resident donated funds to buy tulips in honor of her mother.

Carol even has pieces of her old garden with her. When she was living in the home she and her husband shared before moving to The Esquiline, she had an extensive garden that she had planned to take a few plants from. After her husband got sick, she wasn’t able to move them.

Luckily, though, she had a neighbor with whom she had traded plants through the years. That neighbor showed up with a carload of plants, plants that Carol had originally had.

“It was like my garden had come back,” Carol said.

The Esquiline Garden Scene

The gardens at The Esquiline are full of tomatoes, green beans, zucchini, irises, petunias, daffodils, tulips, and more. Some garden plots are even home to some resident-created artwork.

Resident Charlotte Y., a talented artist, painted a family of ladybugs onto rocks and recently completed some colorful totem poles that reach up to 6 feet into the air.

Take a walk in the garden and you might see a fairy dwelling, too.

“Down further from the L-bed where Marion and I had been planting, there was a tree with exposed roots and moss and gravel,” Carol said. “Charlotte got the idea of a fairy garden in the front. It’s really delightful. She has a little wood ladder that goes up the tree and doors attached to the tree, and a little church.”

The garden is a total team effort, Carole explained.

“There’s a little nucleus of gardeners here that have been doing garden things,” she said.

It’s actually one of the things that enables Carol to continue gardening on such a large scale.  

“We moved here because basically, I could no longer garden. There were other reasons, of course, but my husband had observed that I had reached the point where I couldn’t keep up with my garden,” she said. “In each of the five years before we moved, I cut back a flower bed. Every year I eliminated one but I still had a lot and couldn’t keep up. It reached a point where if I went out, I had to be careful or I would injure my back.”

Now, residents help Carol garden. Her friend Marion helps Carol dig the holes that she can’t dig herself, and resident Rob F. takes care of the watering. Other resident gardeners pitch in along with maintenance staff members.

Certified for Wildlife

The Esquiline recently became a Certified Wildlife Habitat by the National Wildlife Federation. Earlier this year, resident Lynn S. got the idea from reading a wildlife magazine.

“She’s very interested in wildlife and providing plants and bushes and trees—essentially, an environment to support pollinators like butterflies and bees,” Carol said. “She thought it would be great for The Esquiline to receive this designation.”

Carol immediately agreed and worked with Barb Prosser, President of The Esquiline to fill out the application.

“On the grounds, we have acres of forest. We have all kinds of wildlife, like hummingbirds, wild turkey, and deer, all coming to the perimeter of The Esquiline,” she said.


Related: 5 Things to See and Do at The National Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows


Staying Active and Involved

Carol’s husband was not a gardener. He bought her flowers and plants but didn’t know much himself about what his wife was planting.

“When something that he liked bloomed, I would put it in a vase on a window sill in the kitchen,” Carol remembered. “He said, ‘I never promised you a rose garden but you got one anyway.’ He would be happy that I’m continuing to garden here.”

He wanted her to stay involved in the community after he passed, and she’s done just that.

“I find myself busy all the time, as my husband wished me to be,” she said.

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