Presidio’s seniors get green thumbs with new garden at the Presidio Activities Center

PRESIDIO — Presidio’s seniors are the latest local group to take up nontraditional methods of gardening, thanks to a project spearheaded by the Big Bend Conservation Alliance (BBCA). Presidio’s teenagers and elementary school students got a head start in making the city greener, but the BBCA, Presidio Public Library, and Senior Center have teamed up to help local elders get in on the action. 

BBCA originally planned to plant a central community garden, but a door-knocking campaign conducted by community liaison Elvira Hermosillo suggested that Presidians would prefer smaller gardens spread throughout the city, bringing color, cheer and growing potential to different parts of town. “We’re hoping to create a network bringing everyone together,” Hermosillo said. 

Right now, the garden at the Presidio Activities Center is pretty simple: just two raised beds near the entrance to the common space where city council meetings and Senior Center bingo games are held. The city’s parks and recreation director, Elvis Medina, controls the flow to the self-watering beds. “We chose this location because there’s already a lot of activity,” Hermosillo explained. 

Elizama Velázquez, a Senior Center regular, was one of a few volunteers who helped plant seeds in the garden. She’s hoping to give back to the small community that has come to mean so much to her. “What I like most about the Senior Center is speaking with people and spending time with peers,” she said. “We see that we all have the same problems — problems of aging and getting out and socializing.” 

Velázquez’s grandmother used to treat her family’s health problems at home with local herbs and traditional remedies. “I learned so many things from her,” she said. Even among the plants at the Presidio Activities Center, she has a wealth of information about what they can be used for: rosemary, chewed like a gum, can clean the mouth. Yerbabuena, steeped as a tea, can ease stomach aches and promote digestive health. 

Even the creosote that grows naturally everywhere in Presidio — “the queen of desert plants,” according to Velázquez — has antibacterial and antifungal properties. It can be used topically to clean wounds and heal fungal infections, and has historically been used to cure everything from fevers to diabetes. Dealing with desert plants can be tricky, as processing requires removing spines and tough outer coatings. Velázquez likes putting aloe vera in her smoothies, but says removing the spines is “like cleaning a fish.”

Velázquez has passed this knowledge on to her kids. Her daughter, Arian Velázquez-Ornelas, recently helped advise Project Homeleaf on indigenous plants as they planted cacti downtown. “Honestly, I haven’t even taught [my kids] half of what I learned from my grandmother,” Velázquez said. “But I don’t teach my family to drink beer or wine, I teach them to drink lemonade, fruit juice, smoothies. There are so many flowers and plants that can be eaten.” 

After harvest, the plants grown by Velázquez and her friends at the PAC will make their way into dishes prepared for the seniors for their shared lunches. Carmen Elguezabal, head of the neighboring Presidio Public Library, was happy to lend a hand to the project. “We’re hoping that the seniors can eventually take home a box of vegetables when they come,” she explained. “The goal is to get the seniors educated. It’s important for community members to know that they can grow their own vegetables, especially now that the price of food is so expensive.”

Elguezabal has been gardening at the PAC for years with the help of Antonio Serrano, who works part time on the grounds of the library through the AARP Foundation. She’s worked hard to provide shade for visitors who come by to use the WiFi after-hours, and landscaped the area around the library and in front of the PAC with native plants. “I love plants, and there used to be nothing here but desert. We started out with just one tree,” she explained. “Now I have a lot of tourists visiting, and people give me compliments on my garden.”