How can you make the world larger for the elderly in care facilities? And how do you connect such a facility to the neighbourhood? Green can be a key factor, as was demonstrated by the residential care centre Tolsteeg in Utrecht. Here a lush enclosed garden and a fruit and vegetable patch were realised with the help from volunteers living in the neighbourhood.

For a long time there was a desire for more greenery in nursing home Tolsteeg. But as is often the case in these facilities, this was difficult to realize, especially with a view to the future. So many times such ideas run aground because they are initiated by a handful of inhabitants who get too old to carry on or even pass away. And of course there is the maintenance issue: gardening can take up a lot of time and money.

Clear goals and continuity are important

A non-profit organization for urban agriculture in Utrecht, called Stichting Stadslandbouw Utrecht), thought differently. Together with local housing cooperative Portaal and geriatric institution Axion Continu they investigated the commercial and social opportunities of growing vegetables and fruits in those public areas of the neighbourhood that were run down or simply could use something extra. Their aim was to improve the public space and the health of the elderly, and at the same time adding value to the care centre by making the apartments more attractive to potential tenants.

Problems turn into opportunities

Soon the idea arose to make use of the enclosed atrium of the Tolsteeg centre. This was a bricked-in, narrow and bare space between two walkways, with just some plastic potted plants for decoration. It had been an eyesore for the residents for a long time. Because the space was covered with a glass roof, it was a challenge to get the light and temperature right. But Stadslandbouw Utrecht was inspired by the study Green Light for the care for the elderly and asked the researchers from Knooppunt Bouwen met Groen in Utrecht, to investigate the possibility of an edible interior garden in this spot. It would be an excellent opportunity to connect the desire for more greenery with the glass roof of the existing building and, at the same time, realize the results and knowledge gathered in the study.

Indoor garden as meeting place

The first results weren’t hopeful. The conditions for an edible garden in the courtyard were difficult because of the differences in temperature during the year and the minimal amount of daylight entering the narrow space. However, the spot did offer the opportunity for an enclosed garden with subtropical plants, which would make it an attractive spot for residents to meet and socialize.

Nowadays the atrium, that once was so unattractive, has been transformed into a lively green oasis. The project was partly financed by the owner of the complex and a design was drawn up. An army of enthusiastic volunteers, that continues to grow to this day, helped construct the garden during special neighbourhood gardening days.

For a group of elderly who have difficulty getting about and can’t make it outside without help, this indoor garden has become a favourite meeting place. It has enlarged their world and stimulates them to take walks. The atrium has been turned from an eyesore into a lush interior garden that pleases the eye. It was officially opened at the beginning of 2015.

indoor garden


Outdoor edible garden

Besides the indoor garden, there was also a wish for changing a part of the grounds into a vegetable patch, where greens en herbs could be grown for the restaurant of the complex that also caters to people from the neighbourhood. Stichting Stadslandbouw Utrecht managed this project, and volunteering representatives from the neighbourhood made the garden into “De Tolsteegtuin”. With financial support by Axion Continue a gardener could be hired to take care of maintenance.

vegetable garden

The inhabitants of the care facility were and still remain involved in the design and upkeep of the garden in an active way. They can put their own plants in the garden and so-called “old-fashioned” vegetables are grown here as well. By actively tending to the food-producing plants, people get out of their houses and get to meet one another. This improves social interaction in the area. Also, the merits of market-gardening in the city, as opposed to just any green view, are a personal involvement with the neighbourhood and seeing how our food is produced, which contributes to a healthier lifestyle. The garden also stimulates economic growth because the produce can be sold locally. This has changed problematic spots in the public area into opportunities for a flourishing neighbourhood.

vegetable garden

It’s an ongoing process

Developing the Tolsteeg gardens has been a long process, but the best possible results have been achieved with limited means. In the course of only a couple of years the number of volunteers increased from 10 to more than 80 people. Together they transformed a bricked-in and uncomfortable atrium into the flourishing Tolsteeg indoor garden with subtropical plants and trees, benches and tables and an exercise track for the elderly. Outside, a sizeable but rather boring lawn was transformed into a wonderful vegetable garden where many residents from the neighbourhood and the centre can meet one another.

It has become clear that projects such as these one can only succeed if ‘green’ becomes a focal point in the process right from the start. Stichting Stadslandbouw Utrecht, led by the enthusiastic Anneke Moors, has played a vital role and kept believing in the project. By founding the Stichting Tuinen van Tolsteeg, maintenance is ensured for the future.

Green appears to be a binding factor, but in order to make it thrive, you need to work hard!