New Veterans’ Garden Grows Connections, Harvests Success
Four years after the seed was planted, Fritz Porter’s idea has blossomed into a valuable resource for local veterans.
The new Veterans’ Garden at Cantigny Park combines community partners’ commitment to serving veterans and the University of Illinois Extension Master Gardener mission of "helping others learn to grow.”
“I have been thinking about this since the summer of 2012,” said Porter, a University of Illinois Extension Master Gardener and the garden’s volunteer project co-leader. “We wanted to give back to our veterans and provide them a space to learn and grow together.”
The committee began official planning meetings for this garden in 2015, with representatives from Cantigny Park, Midwest Shelter for Homeless Veterans, Oak Park Vet Center and University of Illinois Extension.
The group repurposed an old research plot; a space that hosts 40 three-foot-wide, round, raised beds. Arranged uniformly, the planters stand in rows like soldiers, and together, total 280 square feet of planting area.
After years of development and months of work, the first physical seeds were planted this May, and a dozen veterans were recruited to participate in the pilot program this season.
“They are learning how to plant, weed, and harvest organic produce,” said Porter. “We grew kale, radishes, carrots, Swiss chard, beets, tomatoes, peppers, onions, leeks, basil, green beans, acorn squash, butternut squash, and cucumbers. The garden will be productive through fall with succession planting and we plan to sow winter rye for ‘green manure.’”
Porter and co-leader Logan Wasson, a Master Gardener and veteran, headed a team of fellow Master Gardeners who prepared the lessons, provided garden advice and help, and met weekly for additional garden maintenance. The volunteers and veteran participants gathered on Saturday mornings for a lesson and discussion led by the Master Gardeners, followed by time in the garden.
“It has been an active adventure every week,” said Bob Mathes, a readjustment counseling therapist with the Oak Park Vet Center, an Air Force veteran and a pilot program gardener. “It is very hands on, and there are opportunities to talk and learn with the Master Gardener group, as well as to socialize. A nice exchange has developed between the various veterans. It feels like a community.”
The pilot program included veterans of various ages, genders, backgrounds, and circumstances. While the experience was different than a traditional talk therapy group, Mathes said the outcomes were similar: “to socialize, trust, feel safe, and find purpose.”
“One of the reasons it is so appealing is that it keeps the veterans physically active and involves them with other people,” said Mathes, adding that it also provided consistent connections with the weekly routine.
Each veteran garden participant had two raised beds to manage; each marked with the veteran’s name and branch of service. They could take their bounty home, share with others through the veteran organizations, or donate it. Over the course of the season, the gardeners donated 250 pounds of produce to the Peoples Resource Center in Wheaton.
“We are fortunate to be involved with this important program,” said Porter. “It has been an excellent pilot that we will carry on into next year.”
DuPage County Master Gardener Program Coordinator Sarah Navrotski credits all involved with the program’s success.
“The veterans valued their experience, and the Master Gardeners enjoyed sharing their time and talents with these amazing clients and organizations. Cantigny Park’s horticulture team was instrumental in connecting all these groups, and provided the space and on-site support throughout the season. Overall, this garden project was a victory for all involved.”
Mathes, who has worked with veterans for 30 years, said he can see gardens like this one being a beneficial supplement to many current veteran outreach programs.
“When people feel they belong to something, enjoy it, and feel productive, it keeps them coming back. We have that! Many are eager to do it again, transfer their skills to gardens at home, and share the experience with other veterans.”
For more information on University of Illinois Extension Master Gardeners or other programs in this area, visit web.extension.illinois.edu/dkk/. University of Illinois Extension provides educational programs and research-based information to help Illinois residents improve their quality of life, develop skills and solve problems.
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