Our Campus Elderly Create A Gardener’s Paradise

Note: My website is still blocked. This posting is courtesy of my friend, Pam, in Marshall.


The elderly in China have all sorts of activities to keep them busy.  Retirement age in China is 55 for women, 60 for men, so most retirees are quite spry, healthy individuals. In towns and cities, they enjoy gathering in the evenings or early mornings for group exercise (line dancing, taiqi, ballroom or traditional Chinese dancing). They form small clubs and practice in nearby parks. It’s quite common to see such clubs every day in China, out in the open and enjoying their crafts: choirs belting out folksongs or Beijing opera numbers, mahjong players, mini orchestras, painting or sketching enthusiasts, Chinese calligraphy artists, or sword and fan dancers.

Others not in metropolitan areas, those who are countryside farmers, never give up their skills of growing vegetables around their rural homes. Even when they join their grown children living in towns and cities, their green thumbs itch for seeds and soil.

Perhaps that’s why, on our campus, we have so many of the older crowd who have taken up gardening.

Most of the teaching staff here came from remote farming communities. Our teachers were the first to get a higher education in the family, have a good profession and be able to care for siblings and aging parents with their incomes. Children in China feel a great obligation to care for their relatives when they grow up, thus it’s not unusual for parents to move in with their kids later in life.

So in our campus faculty apartments, many elderly are living with their grown children. And because they were farmers in their youth, they feel the need to keep busy planting on Mother Earth.

That’s where our gardener’s paradise began.

A Deserted Patch Is Tended To

Three years ago, when I first arrived at this school, I took a walk around the campus. On one end, there was a walled in area with deserted classrooms, toilet shacks and dormitories.

For a number of years, this had been our college’s attached junior and senior high school. Young people from the countryside areas and Longzhou had registered to study there. Those who weren’t from Longzhou stayed in the dormitories provided. I heard that about 600 attended both the junior and senior high levels. Hard to imagine in such a small space.

In 2004, the college decided to do away with the institution because better schools were being established in Longzhou. There was no need for us to help educate younger students. The administration decided to focus on only on those at the college level.

Seven years of disuse took its toll on the past educational institution. The cement had buckled, weeds sprang up everything and walls crumbled. Piles of brick were heaped high, waiting to be at some point recycled for small building projects around the campus.

In other words, when the dog and I first walked into this walled-off area, it was a mess. A sign posted on the iron gate told people to stay out, even though another entrance easily allowed people to come and go as they pleased.

No one did as there wasn’t any reason to.

Every day that first year, I had classes in the building adjacent to this eyesore. I was on the third floor, which allowed me an excellent view to look down on our abandoned school yard below.

Imagine my surprise, however, when very slowly, day by day, bit by bit, that weedy mess changed into something amazing.

The elderly on our campus began to see possibilities in growing things among the rubble. Our campus had no other place to grown small gardens than this one plot of land. Thus, despite the sign saying otherwise, the determined, innovative elderly entered and started their journey to create something out of nothing.

A Gardener’s Paradise Emerges: Something from Nothing

For over 2 years now, I’ve watched from my 3rdfloor classroom balcony as a magnificent vegetable and fruit tree garden appeared.

It started as one sole woman cleared a tiny area to put in some beans. News quickly spread as word got out among the older folk living here that there was a place to grow things. If you were willing to put in the time and effort to clear out the bricks and concrete, and block off your own little corner, you were welcome to join in.

And so it happened that we now have an impressive garden, created by our campus elderly, which is truly a work of art.

Looking down on this amazing feat, you can see tidy rows of beans, carrots, cabbage, peas, soybeans, cilantro, scallions, hot peppers and corn. Vines of egg plants, pumpkin, tomato and cucumber cluster about in nooks and crannies. Four papaya trees are already bearing fruit and a few pipa trees are likewise ready for harvesting (Pipa, or loquat, is a south- Asian tropical fruit, something like an apricot.)

Every day, in the cool, early mornings or late evenings, you can see our gardeners carry water to the tiny seedlings and tend to their charges. In fact, it’s not unusual for me to meet my 5th floor neighbor hauling buckets of water up and down our stairwell for her vegetables. She balances her two heavy buckets on a pole set on her shoulders and skillfully maneuvers herself down five flights of stairs. (No elevators on our campus, no matter how high the building.)

I’ve watched her carefully, slowly make her way to her garden, under the heavy weight of her buckets. It’s a rather long stretch to get there but she does it several times a day.

Nor is she the only one. If you want your garden to thrive, there’s no other way to supply thirsty plants with what they need. There are no water lines connected in that deserted part of campus. Our tropical, sizzling sun and roasting temperatures shrivel everything in a matter of hours, even during winter. If you want your plants to survive, you’ll have to provide water another way. Carrying it from home is the only option.





What Will Befall Our Campus Garden?

Such care and love have been put into this gardener’s paradise that I do wonder what will become of it next year. In the summer of 2012, our school is moving.

The entire campus will be sold. All students and faculty will be moved to the new campus in Chongzuo, 1 ½ hours away, where already a majority of the students (8,000) have already been attending school for the past two years. Our school, educating the one-thousand plus, 3-year vocational students, had been holding off the move until more dormitories and faculty housing had been built to accommodate everyone.

I’ve heard now that everything is ready for our arrival in Chongzuo. Next semester will be the last one at Longzhou’s Guangxi Normal University for Nationalities. After that, another school with another name will take our place.

That’s why I wonder what will become of the garden that our retired farmers have worked so hard to create. Without anyone here to tend to the individual vegetable plots, there is little hope of its survival. Such a fate of doom and gloom!

Or not.

Perhaps whoever moves into our faculty housing units will bring with them retirees willing and excited to take over where our gardeners left off. Might even be a banana tree or two gracing our gardeners’ premises in a few years.

Now that certainly would be something to see!

Until then, our squatters’ paradise still has numerous months to thrive and flourish, bringing with it our elderly’s nurturing love of gardening.

Until next time, wishing you Ping An (peace) for your day.


About connieinchina

I have been in the Asia region for 30 years as an English language teacher. 28 of those have been spent with the Amity Foundation, a Chinese NGO that works in all areas of development for the Chinese people. Amity teachers are placed at small colleges throughout China as instructors of English language majors in the education field. In other words, my students will one day be English teachers themselves in their small villages or towns once they graduate. Currently, this is my 13th year in Luzhou Vocational and Technical College. The college is located in Luzhou city (loo-joe), Sichuan Province, a metropolis of 5 million people located next to the Yangtze River .
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