The Healing Garden

The Healing Garden

The Healing Garden group picture

John Kozlowski, Claude Foster, Rodney Pearsall and Paul Javins (center front) inside the greenhouse at The Healing Garden.

By Yanitz Irizarry
Thursday, June 2, 2016

Around the corner from a large green sign that reads: “Milwaukee: population 595,000,” rests a tranquil place that seems anything like a big city. It is easy to take in the fresh air, become one with the earth and forget the daily noise, just steps away from the entrance of the garden.

“This is the best idea that has come along,” says Vietnam Veteran Claude Foster. He extends out both arms and takes a deep breath of morning air. “Do you see how quiet it is? No hustle, no bustle, no sirens.”

The Healing Garden is on an acre of land nestled inside the 40-acre Kohl Farm, providing a serene escape from reality, fresh air and good, old-fashioned manual labor. Counselors from the Milwaukee Vet Center, located at 7910 N. 76th Street, were searching for ways Veterans could unwind and recover from life’s stresses. The Milwaukee Vet Center came up with the Healing Garden to help Veterans cope with post-traumatic stress, depression and other mental health issues. Veterans and wheelchairs even have access to a raised bed garden.

“I am Native-American, and we always turn to nature for recovery,” said Rodney Pearsall, readjustment counselor at the Milwaukee Vet Center.

The idea came about four years ago while Pearsall attended a University of Wisconsin-Extension seminar on community gardening and urban agriculture. When Jan Alba, a garden plot rental coordinator for UW-Extension heard about the idea, she donated the plot for the project.

The garden started with only a 25-foot plot but has grown each year with the number of Veterans who use the gardening as a form of their therapy. Currently 10 Veterans visit the garden each week.
The Healing Garden - Paul Javin

Paul Javins tends to the greenhouse garden radishes at the Healing Garden.

“It is less about the planting,” said Pearsall. “For many Veterans, they like to socialize. They come to me and say it is the happiest they have ever been. The Vets are less depressed; they feel part of the community. That is what makes the garden a success.”

Veterans meet at the garden Tuesdays at 8:30 a.m. during growing season and bi-weekly during the winter months for education groups. Some meet right at the garden while others carpool from the Vet Center.

“It keeps me busy, it keeps me going,” said Foster. “I like it because it is quiet and I get to use my hands.”

This year will be the first year the compost pile will be ready to use on the garden. Since 2013 the weeds and foliage are gathered in a pile covered by dirt. Insects and bacteria continuously break down the plant matter by creating a rich organic fertilizer. The compost fertilizer is often referred to as “black gold” in the gardening community because it improves the water holding capacity of the soil and improves plant growth for a healthy garden.

“Between the exercise and the healthy eating, a lot of people are starting a new way of life,” said Pearsall. “Each and every day is a good day out here.”

With winter coming to an end, UW-Extension tilled a portion of the garden a couple weeks ago with the help of the company Bobcat Plus.

Tilling at the healing garden

Herman Ross and Richard Griese tills the soil and picks up foliage from The Healing Garden.

The company will return in the fall to plow for the end of the season. Veterans then collect any of the tilled foliage and weeds to create a new compost pile.

“It’s a win-win for all,” said Navy Veteran Paul Javins. “Bobcat Plus tests out their new equipment on the land for UW-Extension and we get free help.”

The Education Center, located on the grounds, was created from reclaimed wood from an old collapsed barn that once stood at the garden entrance. The wood from the barn was going to be used to create a tool shed, but as it grew, organizers decided to do more and make it a place of learning. Builders are putting the finishing touches on the building, so in the meantime, counselors have experts come right to the Vet Center for presentations.

“We have a nutritionist that comes out and teaches us things like, ‘Parsley is good for blood pressure,’ ” said Pearsall. “If we eat better, we can get off some of these medications.”

Pearsall said it will take about four weeks for the first seeds to sprout. Once the plants begin to produce vegetables, a food truck stops by to help veterans prepare meals ideas. Greens and root vegetables are the first to grow in the spring, while cauliflower and pumpkins are ready in the fall.

Javins plans to use produce from the garden to cook nutritional meals while he volunteers at the new Milwaukee VA Fisher House.

“It gives me something to do in the summertime,” said Javins. “As long as I keep busy it helps me.”

Veterans are welcome to join the Healing Garden at any point during the year. For more information, call Pearsall at 414-434-1311.

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