By Lacy Stephens, Farm to Early Care and Education Associate, National Farm to School Network
Photos courtesy of Veterans Organic Garden
The Peach Tree Head Start Garden sure didn’t seem like much to look at when veteran John Johns first laid eyes on it. The abandoned piece of land, conveniently situated between the Ukiah Veterans Administration Clinic and Peach Tree Head Start in Ukiah, Calif., was covered in years of overgrowth and unsafe for anyone, let alone children to wander through. With the commitment and diligence of Garden Manager Johns and other enthusiastic veteran gardeners of Veterans Organic Garden, and the coordination and support of the Gardens Project of North Coast Opportunities, in a relatively short time, this land had transformed into a sanctuary of healing for local veterans and an exciting place of learning and growing for the children of Peach Tree Head Start.
The first step in the project was making the garden area safe enough for children to come into. Once this was accomplished, the planting could begin. Thanks to community donations and volunteer time, the garden soon started to fill with squash, tomato, cucumber, and pumpkin seedlings. The Head Start students were involved even from the very first stages of planting. The children started seedlings in the classrooms to plant in the garden and worked alongside veterans to plant pea seeds in the wooden barrels filled with donated soil and compost.
Planting together was just the start of many valuable experiences in the garden, for both the children and the veterans. Throughout the growing and harvest season, the children made regular trips to the garden to see how their plants were growing and to nibble from the garden’s bounty. Johns says the peas planted in the beginning of the season were a popular treat and the children ate them up like candy. He was also surprised to see how readily they gobbled up the spicy radishes.
Head Start families are gaining hands on experience, too. Garden work days bring together veterans, teachers, parents, and children of all ages to pull weeds, tend plants, and take home bags of fresh produce. The impact of the garden continues into the Head Start kitchen and into the homes of the VA clinic patients. An average of 125 pounds a week of fresh produce from the garden has been served to students in meals and snacks at the Head Start and given away at the VA clinic.
Johns sees significant benefits first hand for both veterans and children. The garden offers a place for mental and physical healing for veterans and empowers them with the opportunity to tend and manage their own plots. For Johns, the best part of the whole project is when the kids come up, hug him around the knees and thank him for gardening with them. Johns wants to engage even more veterans in this project so they can have that experience of admiration and appreciation.
The relationships developed in the garden are meaningful and impactful for the children, too. Johns sees the children looking up to the growers and seeing them as role models, which increases their appreciation for farmers and food in general. The children get to engage in the growing experience with all their senses, from the time that they are very small, allowing them to develop a deep understanding of how food grows and where it comes from. Johns also hopes that by getting children in the garden early, they will grow up excited about growing their own food and make gardening a life long habit.
The success of the garden is not going unnoticed in the community. After a recent newspaper article highlighted the project, several organizations reached out to offer donations, lands on which to start more community gardens, and partnership opportunities. Johns sees this positive response as testament to the importance and impact that a garden like this can have in the community. By bringing together veterans and the youngest gardeners in town, the garden is changing the community from the ground up.