At the Veteran’s Garden on the West LA VA campus, getting your hands in the dirt is a therapeutic exercise. After a hiatus, the blossoming space is coming back to life as a healing tool and nutritional resource for Veterans.
On a bright April afternoon, Navy Veteran Jack Smith is hard at work watering budding broccoli plants. “Coming here, it’s a change of pace,” Smith said. “I get outside, get some sunlight, get some fresh air and I learn things about nature and plants and animals.”
Spearheading the project are Recreation Therapist Brenna Partridge and Whole Health Program Manager and Nurse Practitioner Jennifer Allen. The duo has been working on constructing the all-organic garden for well over a year.
“We’ve been writing land use proposals, applying for grants, obtaining equipment, building things, getting plumbing fixed,” Partridge said.
There’s a large, weathered greenhouse on the property. Alongside the storage shed, where newly purchased equipment is kept, a kumquat tree is dripping with fruit, and a freshly refurbished pergola adds a colorful pop of green.
Partridge and Allen have been busy with the garden every week. On Mondays, Partridge brings Veterans to work as a team to cultivate the space. On a recent visit they were harvesting some massive heads of cabbage, removing harmful grubs and adding new soil to the beds.
“Every time we bring Veterans out here they say that it’s a tranquil space where they can escape for a few minutes and not feel like they’re in the middle of Los Angeles,” Allen said. “That was one of the goals. We just wanted to make a healing space.”
A Seasonal Selection
Currently, 20 raised beds are in use in the garden. They contain a vast assortment of plants including Swiss chard, cabbage, peppers, arugula, spinach, carrots, radishes, and eggplant, among others. Spring will bring a new crop including tomatoes, basil (which grows well in the shade of tomatoes, Allen said), cucumbers and strawberries.
The bounty from the garden is used in Friday’s Healthy Teaching Kitchen class on the West LA VA campus, as well as in meals at the Domiciliary (DOM), a Mental Health Residential Rehabilitation Treatment Program (MH RRTP) on Campus where Partridge works.
Grants and donations were used to purchase most of the garden’s supplies. Brentwood School and UCLA’s Sustainability Scholars have also donated to the garden, and Partridge and Allen are always looking for new community partners to assist.
Hopefully 20 more donated beds will be arriving soon. “We’ll keep building as long as we can,” Partridge said.
They’re also hosting work parties to help complete bigger projects such as clearing entire areas and putting in the new beds (including some that are wheelchair accessible).
There’s a lot of room for expanded programming,” Partridge said. An eight-week “Gardening for Whole Health” class will be starting in May, taught by Integrative Medicine Registered Nurse (RN) and Master Gardener Patricia Hasen. Participants will receive a completion certificate. (Veterans can sign up by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Eventually the garden will be open three days a week to Veterans who want to join in.
“We’re really interested in talking about food insecurity and sustainability and eating organically, and what better way to do it than to have people here with their hands in the dirt understanding what that means,” Allen said.
For Partridge, whose father is a Marine Corps Veteran, food – and organic food in particular – is a passion. “I think it’s really important to give back and serve those who have served us,” Partridge said.
Working at the DOM, she decided she wanted to do something to teach Veterans about eating and growing their own food.
“Even just learning what’s in season – just the benefits of being outside, working with your hands,” Partridge said. “It might just be the social engagement or a feeling of accomplishment. There’s just so much that can happen down here [at the garden].”
“People will say things to me like, ‘I feel free’ or ‘I felt at peace’ or ‘This was an escape,’” Partridge said of Veterans’ reactions to working in the garden. She cites some of the therapeutic benefits including socialization, a sense of accomplishment, physical and mental health, learning new skills and more.
“It’s soothing to be out here,” Partridge said.
Paul Radenberg is a frequent volunteer at the garden. He works as a fitness facilitator and coach at Brentwood School’s Veterans Center for Recreation and Education (VCRE), and loves interacting with Veterans.
Radenberg refurbished the pergola and does other woodworking and gardening projects on site.
“Time flies when you’re down there,” Radenberg said of his work at the garden. “It’s a learning experience.” He cites a recent CNN article that suggests gardening is just as good as exercise – and can even boost your mood.
“Learning the whole [gardening] process and what it takes to get to that end result, it’s amazing,” Smith said. “It makes me feel like I’ve accomplished something.”
To learn more about the garden or to participate, Veterans can email VHAGLAWholeHealth@va.gov.