Veterans Therapy Garden Project groundbreaking scheduled for July 30 in Kalamazoo County

The transformation of a one-acre plot of land in Kalamazoo County into a therapeutic community gardening project for military veterans may someday serve as a template for similar projects across the state, its designer hopes.

In addition to educational beds to teach about native plants, cuttings, and other aspects of gardening, the Veterans Therapy Garden Project on North Westnedge Avenue will include space reserved for participants to grow their own flowers and vegetables, using tools provided by the project. 

The joint undertaking by Kalamazoo County Parks Department and Michigan State University Extension will formally kick off at a 6 p.m. July 30 groundbreaking that the public is invited to attend.

When completed over the next three years, the corner of Markin Glen Park will serve military veterans, their families, and the general public as a space for them to experience how spending productive time in nature improves wellbeing, says Christopher Imler, Michigan State University Extension Consumer and Veterans Horticulture Educator and the project’s curator.

Phase one commencing in July 2021 will begin the creation of a 5,000 square foot garden.The land set aside for the project is directly north of the Kalamazoo Garden Council building on north Westnedge Avenue in Cooper Township.

“The garden itself is going to be located in Kalamazoo County, but we are going to be offering service to all the veterans in southwest Michigan,” Imler says.

Approximately 49,000 military veterans live in Southwest Michigan — 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.

The therapy of gardening

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

Many therapeutic horticulture activities don’t require garden space; at the Battle Creek VA Medical Center, for instance, a therapeutic horticulturist maintains a greenhouse on-site for veterans in residence as part of the Social Work Service, Vocational Rehab Section Training.  

Adam V. Swager, public affairs specialist at that facility, says participating veterans assigned to the greenhouse for vocational rehabilitation work with volunteers to cultivate plants and flowers for the grounds and for a spring plant sale and poinsettias and holiday wreaths for the holidays. 

Although the veterans at the VA program in Battle Creek are not yet involved with the new therapeutic garden in Kalamazoo County, Imler says all are welcome and the project will be totally accessible to those with disabilities.

The fixed outdoor garden space may be a unique aspect of the Kalamazoo County program, Imler says.

“I'm trying to create this sort of permanent space that our participants can take ownership of,” Imler says, “so instead of people coming into a class every once in a while — which they'll still be doing — people can come in and have a base that is uniquely theirs.”

Groundbreaking ceremony map for parking He says that offers a way to engage in horticulture therapy on a self-guided basis, not kept to a schedule. 

“There's no penalty for not showing up,” Imler says. “They come and they take advantage of the space and they take advantage of the resources in a way and in a time setting that makes sense to them.”

“Part of the garden is portioned out so that if someone wants to come and they don't have garden 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.”

Research backs the idea that working in their own gardens can be especially helpful to veterans and their families, Imler says.

In a pilot program to assess a horticultural therapy program for veterans with mental health issues, the eight veterans who completed the full 5-week pilot program reported significantly lower depression and stress. Other recent studies support those findings, Imler says.

A ready force of volunteers to help

As relaxing and satisfying as gardening can be when all goes well, it still helps to have experts around when challenges arise. Kalamazoo County’s MSU Extension’s Master Gardener volunteers will be on hand to help the new gardeners with their plots.

The skills certification program for Master Gardeners requires them in their first year to complete 40 hours of volunteer service, and then every year after that they complete 20 hours, Imler says. Having that ready force of well trained volunteers will be a huge asset to the success of the program, Imler says. 

It’s not about the quality of the tomatoes

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.”

“I'm a veteran myself,” Imler says, “and I'll try not to speak for all of us, but I can speak for many people when I say that one of the elements of coming back (after military service) and having a group of people that you had at least one shared experience with, you know — that was comforting, talking to people who understood what you've been through, maybe understand a little bit better the challenges that you're currently going through.

“I'm hoping people find something similar in this that … you know you have this shared experience about being in the military, and you also have this shared interest, gardening, right? It really just multiplies the impact of a program like this,” Imler says.

Veterans, and everyone

While most of the land being set aside for community gardening will be reserved for veterans and their families, the project also hopes to include as many other peoples as possible from the immediate community in other aspects of the project, Imler says.

According to an MSU Extension article about the project, in addition to the various gardens and meditation areas, the Veterans Therapy Garden Project will also be a living classroom where MSU Extension professionals will teach classes such as stress management, techniques to relieve PTSD (a post-traumatic stress disorder) systems, navigating life changes due to traumatic brain injury (TBI), and alleviating symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Veterans, their families, and the general public are welcome at the groundbreaking ceremony, 6 p.m. July 30 at 5221 N. Westnedge Ave. Parking is available on the south side of the Kalamazoo Garden Council building. 

For financial contributions, follow this link: MSU Extension Veterans Therapy Garden | Giving to Michigan State University

For material donations, volunteer opportunities, and more information contact Chris Imler at or 269-779-8750.  


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.