The Coastal Star

Secret Garden: Caring Center’s garden aims to create a healthier community

ABOVE: Dena Balka in the kitchen at the Infusions Café. RIGHT: Red stem kale is a hearty green thriving in the garden. Photos by Jerry Lower/The Coastal Star

By Deborah S. Hartz-Seeley

The Secret Garden is a small raised vegetable garden at the Community Caring Center of Greater Boynton Beach. The enthusiasm of those who use and maintain it makes up for its lack of size.
Visitors may enjoy 10 three-tiered planting beds flush with bright green lettuce leaves, mustard greens, red- and yellow-stemmed beet greens, delicate carrot tops and plenty of tomato plants well-covered with ripening green orbs.
An in-ground bed at the edge of the parking lot sports rosemary, lettuce and well-formed heads of red cabbage. And, at the rear of the garden, two prolific papaya trees in plastic tubs produce sweet fruit.
This garden got its start about eight years ago when the center’s executive director, Sherry Johnson, realized that a vegetable garden would help fulfill the center’s mission to create a healthier community.
The community in the heart of Boynton Beach, she explains, is a food desert where healthful food is difficult to obtain and many of the residents are low-income older adults.
The garden originally covered two nearby lots that were offered to the center for the price of paying the real estate taxes. There it flourished providing plenty of produce for nutrition and cooking classes. The fruits and veggies also were delivered to local residents’ homes, providing them ingredients for healthful eating.
But the garden faltered when Johnson couldn’t find anyone to maintain and harvest it on a regular basis. So about three years ago, when the generous landowner died, Johnson decided to downscale the garden and bring it onto the center’s own property where it sits today.
“At that time, we chose to focus on teaching the next generation about growing their food and getting better nutrition,” she says.
Even so, the center’s Veggie Mobile continued to visit seniors. But the smaller harvest meant it now has to be stocked with produce purchased from local farmers as home-schooled children work in the garden to earn credits.
“Here they can learn about organic farming and what to do with the harvest. They can get a science lesson from using natural pest control. And they discover the plumbing involved with plants, their root systems and all of that,” Johnson says.
The chefs who use the center’s commercial kitchens find it’s handy to have ingredients just outside the door. That makes it easy to incorporate the fresh produce in their creations as well as in nutrition and cooking classes.
“You just get your scissors, go out and clip what you need,” says Dena Balka, who runs Infusions Café, a small eatery at the center. “I usually bring a colander with me and put the harvest right in there. Then I come in and wash what I picked to use right away.”
You may find her picking a little fresh arugula to add to sandwiches or some basil for pesto. “I like to layer flavors and ingredients so my dishes are never boring and there are lots of textures,” she says.
Bright green wooden boxes of foliage and herbs as well as potted areca palms also sit just outside the restaurant door. Patrons sit among them as they dine al fresco at wrought iron tables.
Visit the center and you can’t help but notice how beautifully the gardens are maintained. That’s thanks in part to Winfred Patrick, who visits almost daily to keep the beds well-weeded, fertilized and watered. “Being in that garden helps calm me down,” he says.
Besides working there, he gets to enjoy the bounty of the garden when he munches a fresh-picked tomato or a green pepper under the sun. The community also respects and enjoys this garden at the center, where many are nourished both physically and emotionally.
“Having this, we’re just blessed,” Patrick says.

Deborah S. Hartz-Seeley is a master gardener who can be reached at

Gardening tip

“We try to plant a little of everything. Our garden does well because we know what grows in Florida and understand the growing seasons. We’ve found that tomatoes thrive as do green peppers and squash. But we haven’t planted many fruit trees such as mangoes, because they take years to develop and we haven’t gotten there yet.”
— Sherry Johnson, executive director, Community Caring Center of Greater Boynton Beach

If You Go

Where: The Secret Garden and Infusions Café are at the Community Caring Center of Greater Boynton Beach, 410 E. Boynton Beach Blvd.
When: The garden on the east side of the building is open every day for viewing. Café Infusions serves lunch 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Wednesday through Friday, and brunch 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
Information: Call the center at 364-9501 or visit For Infusions Café, call 578-0272, e-mail, or visit The menu changes weekly and can be viewed online.

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