Mamie Cooper still remembers how to turn fresh tobacco into cigarettes—by stringing the tobacco onto sticks and hanging them up in the mornings, leaving them until the tobacco has dried. “I’m a country girl,” Cooper says as she recalls planting cucumbers, strawberries, beans, corn, cotton, and tobacco on her family’s farm in Whitesville, North Carolina, where she lived until she followed her mother to Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, in 1959.
After nearly 50 years in the neighborhood, Cooper joined the Saratoga Senior Center in 2007 out of curiosity, walking into the building with her cousin just to find out what was happening inside. One day soon after, a staff member said, “‘I got something to show you,’ and we went to the greenhouse, and that’s where I’ve been ever since,” Cooper recounted.
Located in the parking lot of the Saratoga Senior Center building on Halsey Street between Broadway and Saratoga Avenue, the center’s greenhouse is run by Sean-Michael Fleming and garden assistant Jasmine Stewart, in partnership with a group of seniors who attend twice-weekly classes—Saratoga Grows, which offers hands-on gardening classes in the greenhouse and nearby raised garden beds, and Saratoga Cooks, which offers cooking demonstrations using ingredients harvested from the gardens. Now in its sixth year, the program cultivates a seed-to-plate environment that promotes nutrition and keeps seniors active and connected to their community and natural environment.
Fleming previously founded EcoStation: NY, a nonprofit that operated several Bushwick Farmers’ Market locations; launched sustainable urban agriculture projects, including the Secret Garden Farm and Nature Preserve, Farm-in-the-Sky, Grove Street Farm, and Bushwick Campus Farm & Greenhouse; and created longstanding community events, including the popular ¡CalabazaFest! held annually in October in Maria Hernandez Park. RiseBoro Community Partnership acquired EcoStation: NY in 2018 and, after training RB staff to take over the farmers markets, Fleming took on the role of project lead for the Saratoga Grows and Saratoga Cooks classes at the Saratoga Senior Center.
A writer, designer, and self-described “nature boy” from New Hampshire, Fleming became involved in community gardens after a health crisis led him to reexamine his life. “One of the ways to restore my physical and mental health was to reconnect with the Earth,” he said. “I had a lot to learn—luckily the gardening community is very welcoming.”
When weather permits, Saratoga Grows meets in the greenhouse or by the raised garden beds on Wednesdays at 1:30 p.m. Classes involve planting, weeding, and caring for the garden beds and planting seeds in small containers in the greenhouse. During a recent class, Fleming and Stewart demonstrated how to plant microgreen seeds—including broccoli and basil—in a shallow plastic tray by first adding water, then soil, then scattering seeds and misting the soil with water from a spray bottle until damp. Seniors took turns choosing their own microgreen seeds to plant while Fleming answered questions about the technique.
Even with her extensive gardening background, the plants and techniques are new to Cooper.
“I love the class, and I’ve learned quite a few things from Sean,” she says. “I knew okra, collard greens, cabbage, corn, and tomatoes, but I never knew about how to plant seeds like basil and thyme. And when we first planted seeds in the greenhouse, I thought they were going to die because that was something new to me.”
“It gives me a chance to mingle with people. We all sit down and talk to each other and to Sean about different recipes, what’s in season, and what’s going on in our lives. That’s what helps us maintain our sanity amidst everything that’s happening.”-Dorothy McClain, member of the Saratoga Senior Center and longtime participant in the Saratoga Grows and Saratoga Cooks classes.
Saratoga Cooks classes complete the garden-to-plate cycle, teaching seniors how to transform their harvests into healthy meals they can prepare at home. Fleming—who is also a former chef and caterer—sets up a cooking station in the center’s dining hall and demonstrates how to cook simple, seasonal meals, often using ingredients harvested during that week’s Saratoga Grows class. At the end of the demonstration, he packs completed meals into take-home containers for the seniors and passes out grocery lists and recipes so that they can replicate their favorite dishes on their own.
“I’m not teaching them to become cooks,” Fleming said. “It’s more about getting people to really think about the food that they eat and what they put in their bodies.”
Dorothy McClain, who lives in an apartment above the center and has been coming to the Saratoga Grows and Saratoga Cooks classes for five years, enjoys the opportunity to get out of her house, meet new people, and learn new gardening techniques.
“It gives me a chance to mingle with people,” McClain said. “We all sit down and talk to each other and to Sean about different recipes, what’s in season, and what’s going on in our lives. That’s what helps us maintain our sanity amidst everything that’s happening.”
Like Cooper, McClain is also from the south and grew up gardening with her family in the small town of Lamar, South Carolina. She moved to Bed-Stuy in 1984.
“Down there, we raised everything ourselves, from turnips, collards, cabbage, okras, cucumbers, and squash to watermelons,” she recalled. “Things have changed so much now, so there’s a different way of gardening than when I was growing up. A lot of it is quicker and easier.”
Now in their sixth year, Fleming tries to keep the classes engaging for returning students, coming up with new lessons and recipes that build on their existing skills.
“We seniors need something like this to keep us motivated and to keep our minds active,” McClain said.
“I try to get everybody to come,” Cooper added. “We’ve had a lot of fun here.”
Saratoga Grows and Saratoga Cooks meet weekly on Wednesdays and Thursdays from 1:30-3:30 p.m. Classes are open to adults aged 60 and over who are members of the Saratoga Senior Center. For more information and to join the center, contact Chanteze Jones-Taylor at 347.425.0676.