A vacant lot is transformed into "pure joy" for a group of seniors.

A vacant lot is transformed into "pure joy" for a group of seniors.

Chung Hong Liu is definitely in her happy place. She flashes a big smile as she points out giant taro plants to her left, tiny ground cherries to her right and a stretch of light-green pea vines about to begin their trip skyward in front of her. Like the other global gardeners from the Stoneridge Court independent living facility in Dublin, she takes great pride in the green oasis she and her fellow residents have created out of a messy empty lot next to their home. "I call it their pure joy," says Wendy Lee, a service coordinator for National Church Residences, which operates Stoneridge Court.

What started out as a single small garden five years ago has blossomed into a bountiful patchwork of personal fiefdoms that reflect the culinary, cultural and botanical heritages of their creators. "They've put a lot of hard work into it," says Lee, who also serves as an interpreter for the mostly Chinese-speaking residents (all senior citizens) and interpreted for this story. Stoneridge's first gardener, Dengying Liu, 76, started the whole thing with a small garden in the empty lot. Now, she says with a laugh, "it's out of control," as other residents have staked out large sections as their own.

One of those sections belongs to Hong Liu, 76. Her garden alone is about 35 feet by 25 feet, surrounded by chicken wire to keep out the rabbits, chipmunks and other critters that would like to lay claim to her greenery. Like the other gardeners, she uses tree branches as plant supports and trellises and crowds her space with so many plants that weeds would have to fight for a shred of sunlight. Strips of old carpet keep the garden paths clear, and some plants curl overhead on pergolas made of sticks.

"I'm not the type to sit around at home," explains Hong Liu when asked why she has such a large garden. Every day, weather permitting, she works in the garden for two hours in the morning and two hours in the afternoon. "I used to be chubby, and now that I exercise, I'm in shape," she says with a chuckle.

Jianying Wang, 78, started her garden to help combat severe osteoporosis. Among other things, she grows black peanuts, yams, white potatoes and Chinese pumpkins, working about six hours a day in long sleeves, gloves, a ball cap and muddy sneakers. "I enjoy it, the outdoors, and it's very good for me," she says.

Like the other gardeners, Wong shares her harvest with other Stoneridge residents, friends, her church and anyone else who stops by. Volunteer Ken Andrews has watched the garden expand each year as the Stoneridge residents discover new plants to grow. "Each one of these gardens is their little stamp on America," he says. "Last year it was about a third of this size."

Family members who live nearby help with the heavy lifting in the gardens sometimes, but the residents themselves maintain this oasis of Chinese gardening in the Midwest. "We eat healthier that way," explains Wenxi Xu, 74, who has a garden with her 81-year-old husband, Xingchun Hong. "We enjoy the sun, and we get our vitamin D."