How a Former Principal Grows Wheaton Nursing Home’s Huge ‘Secret Garden’ Full of Lessons

Retired principal Linda Kunesh has tended a garden at a DuPage County nursing home for more than a decade.

The therapeutic garden at DuPage Nursing Center has in many ways become a teaching space.

Every Thursday from May to September, Kunesh and other trained volunteers ring a bell around 10:15, make their morning announcements and share weekly lessons with the nursing home residents.

They learn how to manage plant diseases and the occasional pest, and how to grow herbs and vegetables – tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, carrots, you name it – in their own garden beds at the Care Centre.

Some residents are visually impaired, so Kunesh emphasizes the tactile experience of gardening. Others have no use for their hands. If they have a doctor’s appointment or can’t work in the garden that week, another resident, one of their friends, will pitch in to help and harvest their crop.

“We make whatever we need to make,” said Kunesh, 71, still a teacher at heart.

When everything outside looks bare and grey, Kunesh prepares for a busy spring. Good gardening is all about patience — “and a lot of hope,” Kunesh said. She got these lessons from her mother, Grace, who went to work in a greenhouse when her husband died in her 40s.

        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        

“She wasn’t into kitchen gardening,” said Kunesh, who grew up in Elmhurst with her three siblings and now lives in Carol Stream. “She liked her flowers, especially her little dahlias.”

Grace Kunesh decided on her own terms to move into the Care Center in 2014. She valued her independence, but in the last years of her life she needed long-term medical care and found sanctuary in the gardens of the Wheaton nursing home.

Every day Grace Kunesh sat in the garden with a book or a word search puzzle, surrounded by her little dahlias. She died aged 93 four years ago.

“She was a firebrand,” her daughter said.

You could say that Linda Kunesh takes after her mother.

“She’s so conscientious and so caring and passionate,” Janelle Chadwick, the Care Center’s administrator, said of Linda. “And if she wants something done, like a tree moved or trash picked up, she’s like a dog with a bone. She won’t let it go.”

Her passion goes far. What started as a modest in-ground garden has blossomed into a 12,000-square-foot world of horticultural beauty that has received awards and thousands of dollars in grants.

“It’s just taken on a life of its own,” Chadwick said.

Seeds of community

Affectionately known as the “Secret Garden,” it is tucked behind the county-owned campus. A dozen rows of raised beds make gardening accessible to people who use wheelchairs or walkers. A garden post reminds visitors that it is a place to “restore, reflect, rejuvenate.”

“Some of these residents have such major medical issues,” Kunesh said. “This gives them some time to forget what their suffering is.”

More than 60 volunteers in the master gardener corps, a group trained by a University of Illinois Extension program, offer their expertise and physical labor. Kunesh has been their team leader since 2011.

“The orientation of master gardeners and what they go through, it’s very structured,” Chadwick said.

Structured, well organized — sounds like a classroom, right?

Kunesh is a former special education teacher and principal of the Independence Center for Early Learning in Elgin Area School District U-46. Bartlett Preschool serves students with and without disabilities.

“It was just wonderful to see kids together and learning together instead of in isolated classes,” Kunesh said. “There were many years when special education isolated the children away from other children.”

Now she reduces the feeling of isolation in seniors. With 368 licensed beds, the center offers long-term care and short-term rehabilitation services to hundreds of patients, most of whom have Medicaid.

“One of the best things about this garden program is that we developed a community of gardeners,” Kunesh said.

That community held together during the darkest days of the pandemic.

As residents went into quarantine, master gardeners kept planting and published tips in “The Secret Garden Gazette.” Copies of the newsletter were delivered to each resident gardener. Care center staff even read articles aloud over the PA system.

“This provided a wonderful opportunity to still connect them with what was going on in the garden,” Kunesh said.

A beautiful bounty

The numbers behind the gardening are staggering: Master gardeners have volunteered 23,475 hours to the DuPage Care Center from 2009 to 2022.

Kunesh has created support for the garden with his grant applications. The Bloomingdale Garden Club — she is a member — has donated more than $4,000 in flowers since 2012. For decades, Prosek’s greenhouse in Winfield has donated vegetables and herbs.

During the 2022 season, 55 resident gardeners, all with their own 15 square meter plots, planted vegetables and flowers of their choice.

Resident gardeners sell nutritious produce and flower arrangements at a mini farmers market set up in a hallway, with the money raised to fund their end-of-season luncheon in September. They also donate produce to the People’s Resource Center food pantry in Wheaton.

Chadwick buys bouquets to brighten up employee desks.

“The way they put them in vases and arrange them, it’s just amazing,” she said.

A garden planted in 2020 with bee balm and around 80 other types of pollinators should next summer be more beautiful than ever before.

“You know what they say about perennials? First year they sleep, second year they creep, third year they jump,” Kunesh said.

But this time of year, she gives a gardening lesson in gratitude.

“To be able to work with these wonderful people, the residents, the master gardeners, the staff, I can’t say enough about the quality of people who gather there to have.”

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