Veterans Garden Project grows hundreds of vegetables at Humboldt Community Garden
“For me, gardening is part of my whole therapy,” explained Bryann Ybarra-Weckmann, a volunteer and gardener at the Veterans Garden Project, a new nonprofit focused on getting vets to get their hands dirty. The garden, which was built over the past few months, is in the center of Butte Environmental Council’s Humboldt Community Garden, a sprawling garden across from Marsh Junior High School on Humboldt Road.
Ybarra-Weckmann, a Glenn County master gardener, is also a Coast Guard veteran who served as a petty officer in Haiti and elsewhere in the Caribbean. He suffers from PTSD.
“I’m a ruminator,” he said. “When I’m working in the garden, I don’t find myself ruminating so much. I’m literally thinking about the plant [I’m working with], and thinking about the garden. It just keeps me grounded; it keeps me in the present.”
At the gardens on the Saturday of the recent Memorial Day weekend, Ybarra-Weckmann and his wife, Maria De Los Angeles Weckmann, were watering young pepper, squash, and tomato plants, while VGP’s organizers and co-founders, Michelle Angela and Michael Cannon, handed out hundreds of free vegetable starts to the roughly 70 vets who came out for the giveaway event.
“If you had told me about this six months ago, I would’ve been, like, ‘Yeah, right!’” said Angela.
Yet, she ended up spending most of the spring—after work and most weekends—on the project. At the end of January, when Cannon, a well-known local gardener, was about to plant the thousands of seeds that would end up as plant-starts at BEC’s popular Endangered Species Faire plant-giveaway in early May, Chico State professor and Humboldt Community Garden founder Mark Stemen approached him and Angela.
“He came up to me and said, ‘I heard you’re a nurse and you work with veterans,’” Angela, a mental-health nurse with the Veteran Affairs’ Chico Outpatient Clinic, recalled. Stemen, she said, proposed that she and Cannon work together to take on an unused 25-by-60-foot plot at the center of the community garden that was reserved for agencies focused on particular segments of the community, like vets. “It seemed like the timing was perfect. … We decided, well, let’s just put this in motion.”
An early offer by local environmental activist Kelly Meagher (who also sponsors the Endangered Species Faire plant-giveaway) to cover the cost of the plot rental got the ball rolling. Next came registering the new nonprofit with North Valley Community Foundation. Angela and Cannon signed the papers and officially rented the plot on the same day, March 1.
“We weren’t sure how we were going to get the money for the [raised-bed] boxes, once we got the site. We started cleaning” up the plot, readying for planting despite a lack of funds to build the raised beds, Angela said, “but we knew we had to stay on course because of the timing of the plants.” Friends and co-workers quickly pulled through, via donations and volunteer hours.
A dedicated crew of volunteers—more than 40 in all, including more than a dozen regulars—began to take shape, many of them veterans, some of them veterans’ supporters, including Angela’s co-workers—dental assistants, mental-health nurses and doctors. The next step was a one-day marathon at the end of April to build the 22 8-by-4-foot wooden raised boxes that would soon be planted with upward of 500 vegetable and flower starts.
“It was ‘shock and awe’ to put in 22 boxes in one day, you know—boom, there they are! That’s why they call them the ‘veggie barracks’—it’s like, all right, let’s get these up and going!” said Angela, laughing.
The Veterans Garden Project has received donations and volunteer help at every turn, said Angela. Dirt was donated, a Marine volunteer installed the irrigation, and the local VA awarded a $5,000 grant to fund continued expansion of the project by paying for a large shade structure, ADA-compatible picnic benches, a shed, and more—which will benefit all the gardeners, not just the vets.
“If there’s that shade structure in the middle with some misters, they can all hang out there, they can talk, they can weed,” explained Cannon.
The community aspect is key in helping veterans ease back into their community, said Ybarra-Weckmann.
Upon returning from active duty, many veterans “feel like we somehow become separated from the community,” which can often lead to isolation, he said. “I believe the community garden is one of the ways—a means and place for us—to begin to reintegrate [into the community] in a positive way.”
Stemen agreed: “For us at the Humboldt Community Garden, the most important work is not the gardening—it really is community. We’re allowing people the opportunity to grow food, but allowing it in a way that will build deeper and deeper community.
“So if we can get a diversity of populations, that’s only going to bring a richness out of the garden,” he said.
Angela said she has had veterans come out to the garden as a result of the encouragement of their doctors, who “prescribe” time in the garden along with the regular medication prescriptions. According to the American Horticulture Therapy Association, horticulture therapy—therapy involving plants and gardens—is touted to improve a sense of well-being, reduce stress, provide connection to the natural world, build useful job skills, provide access to healthful foods, and improve immune response.
“There’s something just healing in going out in the morning and starting your day out right” in the garden, said Ybarra-Weckmann.
The abundance of vegetables Angela and Cannon anticipate they’ll soon have will be given away to veterans at their own vet-run farmers’ market at the garden, which will begin around mid-summer, and to Vectors, the local transitional housing for veterans, which contributed some of its food budget to get the garden going.
Angela is pleasantly surprised at how far they’ve come, thanks to the larger Chico community, in the three months since they signed up for the plot.
“That’s what Chico’s capable of,” she said. “That’s the fun of it—this really has been totally Chico’s signature in every way.”