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COVID-19 kept these seniors apart; a post-lockdown garden tour brought them back together

Barb O’Brien points out the purple larkspur in her garden, grown from seed from a friend.

There are the tiger lilies that always bloom a week before the birthday of her late husband Jack.

In between are dozens of snapdragons, petunias, marigolds plus a foxglove she waters three times a day.

Her garden fills the edge of her yard at the Homestead Village retirement community in East Hempfield Township. With permission, O’Brien has “oozed,” as she puts it, into her neighbors’ yards, filling them with color. And this year, she did all of this without leaving her apartment.

To protect the most vulnerable from COVID-19, retirement communities throughout the state have closed their doors to visitors. Last week O’Brien and 16 other gardeners joined Homestead Village’s first garden tour. They showed what they could create in a year when their favorite plant sellers were closed, when some gardeners weren’t allowed to leave home because of a global pandemic and when nursing homes were blamed by some for the economic shutdown.

The free garden tour was only for the retirement community, but the woman behind the event wants everyone to know what her neighbors created during their “lockdown.”

“I know there are a lot of people out there who want to get back to work, which is important,” says Linda Kay Pressley. “They think of us as old people and we can die off. We’re vibrant individuals and we have a lot to offer.

“We have a zest for life. Don’t write us off yet.”

Homestead Village garden tour*

Linda Kay Pressley came up with the idea for Homestead Village's garden tour.

A first garden tour

Pressley came up with the idea for a garden tour a year ago when she overhead a conversation in the cafeteria. Pressley lives in the retirement community’s newest section, The Farmstead. She heard a new resident ask for a tour of Homestead’s neighborhoods.

Why not have a tour for everyone, she thought. Since so many people have done creative things with their small yards, she suggested a garden tour.

Pressley recruited more than a dozen gardeners. The homes with plants visible from the road were organized on a driving tour. Other gardens with plants in the back yard were added to a walking tour. She also lined up a bus tour for those without cars or who have limited mobility.

“Farmstead is 1.1 miles from the main campus and there’s no way they’re going to navigate that across two busy highways,” she says.

Little did she know crossing Rohrerstown Road would not be the biggest concern in the spring.

Homestead Village garden tour*

Doris Krammes, left, and Carol Nielsen look at the flowers outside the home of Robert and Shirley Garrett.

Gardening in a pandemic

Just in time for the earliest planting, COVID-19 closed businesses considered not life-sustaining.

As the coronavirus spread throughout Lancaster County, retirement communities and nursing homes asked visitors to stay home and residents to stay put. Homestead Village was among the retirement communities in Lancaster County that reported positive cases of COVID-19 in staff and residents and COVID-19-related deaths. Testing continues for those with symptoms.

In mid-March, events in the community shifted to social distance activities like a photo contest and programs on the in-house TV channel, says Karen Longenecker, life enrichment and volunteer coordinator at Homestead Village.

Homestead Village garden tour*

Karen and Don Culp save the annuals for the containers on the porch and patios. The rest of their garden is filled with perennials and shrubs.

Pressley didn’t give up hope on the garden tour.

“I firmly believe that we have enough bad news. I really think that the residents need something to look forward to rather than bad news all the time,” she says. “...Gardens are the best way to A) get outside and get some fresh air which is wonderful for everybody. And B) just to see something growing and not think about death.”

The garden tour got the green light by the time Lancaster County moved to the yellow phase. The tour was outdoors. Masks were encouraged at each garden. Canes and sanitizing wipes also were available.

Wednesday, the bus took more than a dozen people to the gardens. In the afternoon, the tour continued on foot and by car for about 130 people.

Homestead Village garden tour*

Milt Gockley points out how he plants his flowers in patterns.

Milt Gockley’s garden starts at his curb with tidy rows of begonias and cosmos. A sign points visitors to the back yard filled with more plants.

Gockley made it back to Lancaster County from vacationing in the South just in time for his 800 tulips to bloom. He digs them up and replaces them with 800 annuals but this year, he had to wait until the Flower Wagon near Lititz was allowed to open. He finished about two weeks before the tour.

“I consider this a contribution to our society,” he says. “You can make people happy. There’s enough of this other type of stuff in the world.”

Homestead Village garden tour*

Barbara O'Brien filled her garden with annuals with a no-contact delivery from her son.

Over at the apartment building, O’Brien told visitors that she starts every morning in her garden, weeding and deadheading spent flowers. It’s time well-spent.

“There’s so much craziness going on,” she says. “The joy I get from this is wonderful.”

Some of the perennials come from her home in Long Island. She and her husband moved to Lancaster 20 years ago to be closer to their three sons. When he died, she moved to the Mews at Homestead Village. When she had a stroke, she moved to this apartment. At each home, she planted a garden with flowers in many colors.

Homestead Village garden tour*

A visitor looks at Barbara O'Brien's garden.

Usually in the spring, she goes to the nursery to see what catches her eye. This year, that wasn’t possible.

“I couldn’t go anywhere,” she says. “We were in lockdown. We had problems here and I really felt very responsible for not doing something bad.

“I went to the grocery store for the first time in three months this week.”

In the meantime, her son Jim picked out plants he thought she would like. He put on a mask and left the boxes on her patio. O’Brien watched from inside and then planted them in her yard.

“This is just something I love to do,” she says. “Maybe I’m selfish and I do it for me.”

Yet everyone who stopped by had compliments and questions about her gardens.

Sheri Hinkle and Phyllis Thompson came to see what creative things neighbors like O’Brien are doing in their small gardens. It was also a nice excuse to get outside.

“It’s nice to be out and hopefully see some neighbors,” Hinkle says.