Growing the Next Generation: Grandfriends and Gardens

June 30, 2021 - <>, PhD and Holly Blastic, Ionia County Great Start Collaborative Family Liaison

“Living is a kind of skill. The calm and wisdom of old age are achieved over time.” Atul Gawande in Being Mortal

In New York, a director of nursing laid out a plan to revitalize assisted living for seniors which included, among other aspects, on-site child care for staff and a garden at the back of the facility. With an outdoor vegetable and flower garden as well as indoor plants for the residents to tend and more importantly, show the staff’s children how to care for, the project was affectionately referred to as an experiment. However, the program was actually studied for over two years and revealed positive outcomes for the residents in terms of quality of life (Gawande, 2014). Indeed, these results mirror other research on community gardens that suggests these spaces can improve quality of life outcomes, social justice, intergenerational connections, and learning (Hake, 2017; Jakubec et al., 2021).

Closer to home for us in Michigan, a group of seniors in Ionia County wait expectantly for their “grandfriends” to arrive for intergenerational garden club, coordinated through the Intergenerational Playgroups Ionia County Facebook page. On Earth Day 2021, preschoolers in the garden club repurposed tin cans with careful washing, decorating the outsides with bright paint and artwork. Under the guidance and coaching of their elders, they carefully transplanted marigolds and geraniums to share some of the blooms with their senior friends and take some home to their families.

Painted tin cans hold marigolds and geraniums planted by preschoolers
Photo Credit: Holly Blastic

Later in the spring, an activity to celebrate National Pizza Day included a literacy activity with rock painting and tomato planting. A pizza party is planned for the fall, so the group planted even more tomatoes, basil, oregano, and peppers in late spring to harvest for the party in early fall. During the pandemic there was a brief pause for garden club, but the return of activities has rejuvenated both the children and the residents of the facility.

“I was an elementary teacher so being able to see them makes everything seem normal, keeps me in tune with everything going on outside.” Doris, senior participant at Intergenerational Playgroups Ionia County
Two small tomato transplants sit next to the book "Peppa's Pizza Party"
Photo Credit: Holly Blastic

Defining intergenerational gardening

Intergenerational gardening is a way for older adults to pass along information about plants, gardening skills, and important cultural traditions about gardening to younger generations (Ediblescapes, 2019). Intergenerational gardening is a natural fit for the goals of farm to early care and education (ECE).

Farm to ECE is a set of strategies and activities that offer increased access to healthy, local foods through local procurement, gardening opportunities, and food and agriculture education activities. Farm to ECE aims to enhance the quality of educational experiences for children from birth through age 5.

Benefits of intergenerational gardening

In addition to sharing and preserving cultural traditions, there are multiple benefits to intergenerational gardening, including:

  • A welcoming environment to share cultural and life experiences,
  • New and renewed relationships between children and older adults, which can address previously held beliefs and stereotypes,
  • Improved physical and mental well-being in participants, particularly quality of life for older gardeners,
  • Enhanced interest in gardening for younger participants, and
  • Opportunities to explore and develop skills such as reading, math, science, social studies, and social emotional skills.

(University of Illinois Extension, 2017)

“Their smiles when they first see you and being able to see how excited they are, makes me so happy to see that they are happy.” Lester, senior participant at Intergenerational Playgroups Ionia County

How ECE settings can get started with intergenerational gardening

  • Identify your goals. Clearly stating your goals helps others who might be interested in joining understand how they can contribute. Conversely, learning the goals of participants and creating a space where you can each learn from each other can benefit everyone involved (Ruggiano & Welch, 2011). Knowing your goals ahead of time also helps to determine if they are being met and how they might be modified.
  • Share expectations. It’s important to understand that the goals of older participants may be to share their knowledge of gardening, enhance their own wellness, and/or increase community involvement, while ECE programs may want to increase fruit and vegetable consumption. It’s important to identify expectations and shared goals to avoid conflict and maximize efforts.
  • Coordinate your garden location. If there is not a specific senior program close to your ECE program, consider how you can involve elder family members to take part in intergenerational gardening at your ECE setting.
  • Check out resources for more information: A few resources that might be helpful include:


Ediblescapes. (2019). Intergenerational gardening. 

Gawande, A. (2014). Being Mortal. Picador.

Hake, B.J. (2017). Gardens as learning spaces: Intergenerational learning in urban food gardens. Journal of Intergenerational Relationships, 15(1), 26-38. 

Jakubec, S.L., Szabo, J., Gleeson, J., Currie, G., & Flessati, S. (2021). Planting seeds of community-engaged pedagogy: Community health nursing practice in an intergenerational campus-community gardening program. Nurse Education in Practice,

Ruggiano, N., & Welch, B. J. (2011). Institutional capacity for volunteerism in intergenerational shared sites. Journal of Intergenerational Relationships, 9(3), 250–263. 

University of Illinois Extension. (2017, March 1). Benefits of intergenerational gardening.



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