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Phoenix VA Starts Therapeutic Gardening Group

Phoenix VA Veterans participate in gardening group activities around the Carl T. Hayden VAMC
Phoenix VA Veterans participate in gardening group activities around the Carl T. Hayden VAMC

Veterans and their families are rolling up their sleeves to participate in a new therapeutic activity at the Carl T. Hayden VA Medical Center every Wednesday at 11 a.m.

Facilitated by Phoenix VA Peer Specialist, Carol Tucker, who is also an Army Veteran, the gardening group was founded for Veterans to experience a powerful therapeutic activity that allows them to partake in a mindfulness exercise. Through gardening, Veterans enjoy a peaceful environment where they can plant and grow organic vegetables and watch as their seeds turn to delicious, fresh vegetables and homegrown flowers. 

U.S. Army Veteran Loren Hubbell said, “I like gardening, it’s very healthy and relaxing. I grow sprouts, and different things I eat which hasn’t been exposed to pesticides, its fresh.” Hubbell had recently switched to a plant-based diet and does a lot of gardening on his own, so for him, the garden group is a method to give back by teaching as well as learning different techniques.

According to Horticultural therapy, nutrition, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in post-military Veterans: developing non-pharmaceutical interventions to complement existing therapeutic approaches, “Horticultural therapy or growing and eating food together provides several ways to increase mood, improve nutritional status, reduce loneliness, and reduce the physical health impacts of mental illnesses such as post-traumatic stress disorder.” 

When Tucker mentioned to her supervisor, she wanted to start a garden group for Veterans and their families as one of her support group activities, her coworkers decided to donate items to support this activity. “All the items being utilized by the gardening group from the seeds to the gardening tools to the fertilizer were donated by employees from the 32nd Street VA Outpatient Clinic Mental Health department,” said Tucker. The Phoenix VA Environmental Management Service personnel also assisted with dumping and moving dirt as well as running the sprinkler systems so the vegetables and flowers would get enough water. 

“For me, the garden group is super relaxing,” said U.S. Army Veteran Darmese Steiner. I can come to the VA and learn how to grow my own food, which is important to me because of all the chemicals and stuff being utilized and marketed by the food industry. I want to be able to grow at least the basics I use every day and I didn’t know it was so easy. By joining this garden group, I have learned so much and I would highly recommend it because it's peaceful. Also, gardening is something you must have patience with, so I enjoy watching things grow.”

Since the garden group was started, Veterans and their families have been responsible for cleaning up the garden beds to prepare to plant seeds for the new garden project. They have also been removing dead flowers from around the Canteen Patio area at the Carl T. Hayden VA Medical Center. So far, the group have planted tomatoes, celery, squash, carrots, beets, peas, cilantro, thyme, and sage as well as they have laid the fertilizer and soil within the flower beds. The garden group has also been tasked with replanting and maintaining the flowers around Carl T. Hayden’s Ambulatory Care Center entrance. 

“The purpose of this new garden group is to aid in the recovery of Veterans who maybe suffering from mental health issues,” said Tucker. “It gives them a chance to learn a different coping skill aside from therapy and medication. This also gives them a chance to meet other Veterans and gain a sense of community outside of group. By participating in gardening among fellow comrades, it helps Veterans including myself who may suffer from chronic PTSD.” 

Tucker also added, “Gardening is very therapeutic. It allows Veterans to relax and just breath. For some, gathering with fellow Veterans allows them to take their minds off what they’re going through as they’re able to see different things grow and they too can envision themselves growing as they see what it takes for their gardens to grow.”

Not only are Veterans enjoying the group, family members of Veterans are also coming out in support of their family members. Tyecheia Lopez mentioned, she became a part of the Veteran group for three reasons. “I joined the garden group to support my sister, who is a Veteran and then to learn about gardening so I can do some things at home too. I also came to relax my mind.”

When the vegetables begin to fully ripen, the Phoenix VA Mental Health Department will distribute the vegetables to the Veterans and their families that participated in the gardening group.