Bob Udeck gingerly uses his hands and feet to slowly steer his four-wheeled walker carefully through the dirt- and grass-covered field, adeptly maneuvering through the ruts, divets, mounds of dirt, rocks, and plants that line the path leading to the Heroes Garden.
The 74-year-old Vietnam veteran pulls up to a section of raised garden beds filled with rows of radish and pepper plants and smiles as he admires his handy work: Many of the plants have already begun bearing fruit, some of which were ripe and ready for picking.
“I used to farm when I was younger,” Udeck said, as he wistfully looked out over the plot that houses the Veteran Farming Program. “It feels really good to get your hands dirty again—planting something, nurturing it, and watching it produce.
“Not only does this garden keep me active, it’s also therapeutic— it keeps your mind busy, gets you outside, gives you a goal, and something to focus on. That’s really helped with my post-traumatic stress disorder.”
Through participation in the Veteran Farming Program, organized by the Central Ohio VA Healthcare System and Ohio State University Extension, Udeck is one of 18 central Ohio veterans who has spent the summer farming at the Waterman Agricultural and Natural Resources Laboratory.
Waterman is part of The Ohio State University College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences (CFAES), and OSU Extension is CFAES’ outreach arm.
The Veteran Farming Program is a VA Innovation Center pilot project created to facilitate veterans’ mental wellness through gardening and horticulture. A goal of the program is to create meaningful opportunities for veterans interested in pursuing a potential career in farming, said Nancy Gosztyla, coordinator of the program and a licensed independent social worker at the VA Central Ohio Healthcare System in Columbus.
Participants in the program are all veterans interested in gaining farming/gardening skills while also benefiting from the therapeutic aspects of gardening, Gosztyla said.
“OSU Extension is uniquely qualified to provide both the classroom learning experience as well as hands-on training in gardening and horticulture,” said Gosztyla, who, in addition to working with veterans, has also completed the OSU Extension Master Gardener Volunteers program.
The program, which is available in 77 of Ohio’s 88 counties, offers participants 50 hours of in-depth horticultural training. Then, every year, each graduate of the program provides at least 50 hours of horticultural volunteer service.
Gosztyla’s service as a Master Gardener Volunteer is what led her to work with OSU Extension to develop the Heroes Garden. She wanted to expose veterans to the beneficial aspects of gardening, she said.
The veterans who tended the Heroes Garden this summer first spent several weeks in classrooms learning the basics of horticulture. Then, they spent the summer working in the garden at Waterman. The crops they planted included sweet corn, radishes, carrots, peppers, beans, several squashes, watermelon, tomatoes, eggplant, lettuce, basil, thyme, rosemary, lavender, and cabbage.
Working individually or as a group, they started with a basic plot of land, added topsoil, planted seeds, watered, weeded, and then harvested the produce, said Mike Hogan, an OSU Extension-Franklin County educator who facilitates the program.
“They took home bags of produce every week, which for some, having access to fresh, free food may be an important economic benefit,” Hogan said. “Additionally, many of them had no gardening experience at all before starting the program, so they were able to come away from the program learning a new skill that they could use to develop a small horticultural enterprise and maybe sell produce at a farmers market as a potential income source.”
Working on the land also has proven therapeutic effects, Hogan said.
“Some of the vets suffer from PTSD or have other mental health challenges,” he said. “Research has shown that there are numerous health benefits experienced when people are out in nature, including lowering blood pressure. Plus, they’re experiencing the social benefit of being outdoors and working with others.”
For Navy veteran Alicia Perenkovick, the social aspect of the program was its biggest draw. After eight years in the military, including serving in the Iraq War, she said she suffered from depression and PTSD once she was no longer in the service.
“I was spending time home alone, ruminating about what could have happened, what should have happened, not knowing how to connect with people outside of the military, and not adjusting well to civilian life,” she said. “But coming here to garden each week has helped lift my feelings of depression and given me a sense of purpose.
“When you’re home alone, you don’t have that human connection anymore. But being here, especially around other veterans who’ve had similar experiences, has really helped reconnect me to a life outside my house and provided me a sense of belonging.”
The program ends Sept. 3 and includes a graduation ceremony. But the vets are encouraged to continue farming at Waterman, Hogan said.
“We’re going to continue to dedicate the space at Waterman for the Heroes Garden next year, to be a place for veterans to come and garden together if they wish to,” he said. “We’ll also open the garden up to any veteran who would like to participate.”
Want to garden? Contact Mike Hogan at 614-292-7670 for more information.