Outdoor therapy for Vets comes to Southwest Michigan with new garden in Paw Paw

This story is part of the Mental Wellness Project, a solutions-oriented journalism initiative covering regional mental health issues, by the Southwest Michigan Journalism Collaborative. SWMJC is a group of 13 regional organizations, including Southwest Michigan's Second Wave, dedicated to strengthening local journalism. For more info visit swmichjournalism.com.

A new program in Southwest Michigan is combining some tried and true therapies, in a new mix, to help military Veterans find their return to civilian life a bit easier. 

After a few steps back, a new community garden is almost ready for veterans and volunteers to start planting — and reaping a harvest of help.

The problem

Whether in time of war or times of peace, readjusting to civilian life after military service can be tough. When asked about their transition experience, 76 percent of one group surveyed said it was stressful, and nearly half — 48 percent — found it more difficult than expected.

According to the nonprofit organization that conducted the survey, more than 40 percent of veterans report “high levels of difficulty” when transitioning from active duty back to civilian life.

Chris and Parsnip together at the garden.
One stark and troubling outcome of that stress: 6,261 U.S. military veterans died by suicide in 2019, 173 of them here in Michigan.

Could creative approaches help?

Earlier this year, as part of the Department of Veterans Affairs’ 10-year strategy to reduce Veteran suicide, the VA invited innovators across the country to participate in a $20 million challenge designed to help the VA develop new suicide prevention strategies for Veterans. And in April, as part of the Department of Veterans Affairs and White House national suicide prevention efforts, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs invited applications for approximately $51.75 million in suicide prevention grants that highlighted nontraditional approaches to suicide prevention.

Garden therapy shows promise

A new community gardening program in Paw Paw may be one helpful approach.

The American Horticulture Therapy Association defines a therapeutic garden as one designed to “facilitate interaction with the healing elements of nature,” either through actively gardening, or simply enjoying the plant-dominated space.

That’s the idea that’s coming to fruition with the program being developed through Michigan State University Extension.

The project’s curator, Christopher Imler, Michigan State University Extension Consumer and Veterans Horticulture Educator, is himself a veteran.

In  2010, Imler enlisted in active-duty U.S. Air Force, was stationed in Europe and deployed to the Middle East as a mechanic for construction machinery. He has a passion for growing things, and these days he is combining his three horticulture degrees and Armed Forces experience to help fellow veterans experience the benefits of a well-planned horticulture therapy garden.

Chris at the existing overgrown garden on the site, now home to native wildflowers.It’s all coming together at a one-acre site at 801 Hazen St. in Paw Paw.

The goal of the project — to provide a place for veterans facing the challenges of reentering civilian life to realize the therapeutic benefits of gardening in a community setting, with plots over which they could experience a sense of ownership.

Veterans, their family members, and experienced garden volunteers will work together, in an accessible space with access to tools, taking advantage of the space and the resources “in a way and in a time setting that makes sense to them,” Imler says.

“If someone wants to (garden) and they don't have space at home we will set aside that space for them,” Imler says. “We will make sure that they have access to tools and materials that they normally wouldn't have.”

A roadblock

But the path to the garden has been a rocky one.

After months of planning and work, just as the Kalamazoo County Parks Commission and MSU Extension were poised to kick off the Veterans Therapy Garden Project last year in Kalamazoo, suddenly all bets were off.

“Due to unfortunate and unforeseen circumstances, the breaking ground ceremony scheduled for Friday, July 30, 6 p.m., will be temporarily postponed,” the announcement from Michigan State University Extension read.

Chris Imler at work at the garden.Imler explains the abrupt change of plans.

“I don't want to throw anybody under the bus,” Imler says, “but the short version is that we'd secured what we thought was going to be a good site, a good home for this pilot program. But a neighboring organization was not particularly happy about our plans there. I  think they had in their minds that we were a bunch of — you know, I don't know how else to put this — deranged, mentally unstable veterans that were going to cause problems in the area and disrupt their organization…”

The group’s pressure on county officials mounted and the decision was made to seek a new location.

It was a disheartening jolt, no doubt about it.

But now the program is well underway again, in the new location, with enthusiastic partners, the possibility of enhanced funding, and the benefit of lessons learned along the way.

“It turns out that Van Buren County had a nice sized acre-plus of area that used to be a garden that fell into disrepair,” Imler says. “It’s kind of overgrown, overrun with invasive species” so the county government was very motivated and really excited to see that space transformed.
Also, “they have a very, very pro-Veteran local government,” Imler says.

David Krzycki, Veteran Services Director in Van Buren County, said the garden was one of the first projects he embraced after being hired last year.

“I think Chris Imler from MSUE was like the second person in my office…pitching this program,” he says with a laugh. “And you know, coming out of the military, I understood the importance of people having those life skills that the program promotes, so I hopped on it.”

He and Imler approached the Van Buren County Board of Commissioners and were successful in getting the commission and the administration to allocate the land and to move the project forward. 

Zoning, utilities, permits and materials were needed. 

Chris Imler ties some tomatoes to a trellis.“I would say that like with anything starting out, the hard work’s always up front, “ Krzycki says. “I mean, I wish it was as easy as ‘hey, I want to put a garden in my backyard so I take a Roto Tiller out there and I kind of pull up a plot of land and like, there you go, man, you're planting beets the next day and then you're weeding for about three months. Right.

“But it's a little bit different because, you know, at the end of the day, you're getting grants and donations, and, some of the taxpayers' money. And all those things (permits, zoning, infrastructure) take time. The actual building the garden part, well, that's just a lot of hard labor and sweat. In the big scheme of things, that's the easy thing. 

“You just want to make sure you're doing everything legal and … you have to be a good steward of resources in a community.” With most of the groundwork laid, Krzycki says, “I'm very excited about it.”

Krzycki graduated from Sturgis High School in 1987, joined the service two years after high school, and spent four and a half years in the Army, deployed to the Gulf War.

He then attended Western Michigan University, was commissioned in 1996 as an infantry officer, and left active service after a 30-year career.

Now he’s working to build a county services program, he says, “trying to come up with interesting ways to help them be successful in their transition from the military to civilian life.”

Toward that end, he says, “I think that the horticulture program is great because it's an active program — you have to go out there and you have to participate.”

The program reinforces life skills such as time management, prioritization, long-term and short-term goal setting. “I think it really gives you a sense of purpose,” Krzycki says. “The horticulture program is a great conduit.”

While Veterans learn gardening skills, he says, “you can teach them how to be responsible for their own lives and that's what really attracted me to have that program in this community.”

The vision

These days Imler is working on landscaping and creating wheelchair-accessible paths on the site, with hopes that beds will be available in time for a late summer season. There are 20 slots for veterans and their families, and as they sign up they will get a small stipend gift card for materials.

Materials for a greenhouse, paid for by grant money, are on order, an important component, Krzycki says. “What that allows us to do is maintain that a place for people to go and participate in the horticulture program year 'round,” he says, “because the one thing you never want to do is start something and then stop it in September and then try and pick it up again in March. You want to build on the momentum so that was a great win for us, and that was at no expense to the taxpayer. That was all (paid for by) grant money and donations.”

The garden site is located along a county bus line and incentives such as gift cards will be offered to participants who must use private transportation, to help offset the cost, Imler said. 

Yarrow, Chris, and Parsnip on the way to the old garden.The hope is to start later this summer with 10 Veteran gardeners plus volunteers and to double participation next year.

Building on existing research

Successfully growing flowers and vegetables in their own space at their own pace is only part of the goal. The true measure will be: Does it help?

There’s a bounty of research to suggest the program, which combines elements of other therapeutic approaches, will benefit the veterans and their families. 

Veterans who participated in a pilot program to assess a horticultural therapy program for veterans with mental health issues, for instance,  reported significantly lower depression and stress. Other recent studies support those findings, Imler says.

One study concluded reported last year in Complementary Therapies in Medicine  found that horticulture therapy intervention “may be a promising therapeutic modality for improving overall wellness in suicide prevention in at-risk veteran populations.”

A program in Boston suggests that “through light activity, time in nature, and access to fresh fruits and vegetables, veterans can benefit from gardening in many ways.”

“I don’t think anyone needs any more convincing,” Imler says.

Based on substantial academic research that measures the therapeutic benefits of gardening, “the mandate for these kinds of services has increased, and that is seen in the priorities set by the federal government,” Imler says. 

Federal support of new approaches 

Imler has collaborated with the Michigan Department of Veterans Affairs on a  recently-submitted application for funds from the new federal grant programs.

“What I proposed (to the state VA) was that if they had aspirations to do nature-based therapy or non-traditional non-clinical approaches to suicide prevention, we have this program that I'm building that we could really use dedicated support for,” Imler says. “And so they happily integrated some of that” into their grant application.

Imler also has conducted team-building exercises, and is holding therapy gardening classes at the Battle Creek VA Medical Center, “sort of a rendezvous point while we're getting the site ready” in Paw Paw, he says.

Lessons learned

Even with the encouragement he found in Van Buren County officials, Imler has proceeded differently based on the lessons learned over the last year, he says.

“Before forging ahead again, I took the time to communicate with the surrounding businesses and organizations and agencies to make sure that we weren't going to run into the same issues,” he says.

He spoke with two schools that are nearby, and a mental health treatment agency, to explain the garden program’s goals and how the garden would work.

A new smaller garden site has gone in on the property.
“They were incredibly supportive,” he says. “So it's been a really great working relationship.”

Other obstacles to come will be dealt with as they present themselves, Krzycki says.

“We've done a really good job of mitigating a lot of initial things, like parking to make it accessible for people with certain types of disabilities and things like that. 

“That was all part of the planning process as we were putting the garden together,” he says. “I think at this point, we just don't know what we don't know. So, as things come up, we'll have to address those and mitigate those or come up with solutions for problems that are out there in the future.”

What’s next

Starting small and doubling numbers next year is currently the goal,” Imler says, and the potential for the program to be copied in other parts of the state certainly exists: “but the way MSU Extension works, we measure everything we do —  we are an evidence-based organization,” another factor that differentiates this program from other nonprofits, he says. 

There’s certainly room for expansion. Approximately 49,000 military veterans live in Southwest Michigan, 6,500 of them in Van Buren County — and that’s not counting their families and surviving family members of deceased veterans, who are also welcome to use the community garden, Imler says.

But before the program can grow, organizers must be sure it has the intended impacts.

Butterfly flowers attract pollinators.
“If we say that we're going to do something,” he says, “we need to show that we did it” not only by measuring numbers of participants but also the effectiveness of outcomes.

“(We need to show) are the things that we're doing effective, and if they're not, how how can they be improved?” Imler says.

“There's a lot of foundational work that needs to happen first regarding the research model of collecting personal health data,” Imler says. “The question that we're trying to ask is: “Our approach to therapy garden for Veterans, is it having the impact that we're hoping it does?  

“If we are saying that we are approaching Veteran suicide or better quality of health from a non-traditional approach,” he says, “we need to have a strong, strong, strong statement in our data that shows that this nontraditional approach has teeth to it.”

Although he’s confident that will be the case, there’s no way to know for sure until the program is underway and participants can be assessed.

The data will tell the story then, Imler says.

He looks forward to that day.

Chris at the in-progress garden site.“We shouldn't be afraid of the truth, right?” Imler says. “If we want what we're doing to be effective… we shouldn't be afraid of changing our practices so that they are effective, but if what we're doing is not effective, and we're unable to find a way for it to be effective, it would be incredibly inappropriate for us to continue doing it and saying that it is,  knowing that it isn't— because we're taking resources away from other approaches that could be providing real relief for veterans.”

“We have strong reasons to believe that this approach will work,” Imler says, “because it's worked in the past and it's worked for other programs; people have reported that it has good mental and physical health outcomes. But we can't say that for certain  … until we do this research work with our university psychologists” to survey participants before, during, and after their work in the gardens, Imler says.

The benefits of interaction between participants and volunteers, new gardeners and experienced growers, at an accessible site dedicated to growing things, are as much a goal as the harvest itself.

“That’s all part of the real output of this program,” Imler says. “Again, it's not the garden itself. It's the lessons learned, establishing it so that when people decide for themselves whether or not this works for them.”

“Though it certainly didn't start out that way,” Imler says, “it's absolutely a happy ending.”

Photos by Taylor Scamehorn. See more of her work here.
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Read more articles by Rosemary Parker.

Rosemary Parker has worked as a writer and editor for more than 40 years, most of that time in Southwest Michigan.