Honoring our Veteran Gardeners
On November 11, we recognize Veterans Day (originally known as Armistice Day), the end of World War I, and the armed forces' contributions. The stories below profile UC Master Gardener Program projects in Northern and Southern California that make a difference to those in the veteran community. Just as home and community gardening occupied a role in the war effort, gardening and garden education can play a role in community wellness for veterans.
A Home for Veterans in Ventura County
In 2009, Barbara Hill, a UC Master Gardener volunteer in Ventura County, saw a newspaper article soliciting artwork and other "homey" touches for a veterans home grand opening. What could be homier than a garden?” thought Hill. She contacted the administration at the Veterans Home of California – Ventura and offered her expertise as a UC Master Gardener volunteer. The administration supported Hill's vision and formed a partnership with the UC Master Gardener Program of Ventura County to begin work on the more than five acres of open space surrounding the facility.
Initially, Barbara's goal was to provide fresh fruits, vegetables, and herbs for the veterans' home. She recruited other UC Master Gardener volunteers, and together they planted sugar snap peas, sweet peas, and artichokes in a couple of raised garden beds. They left several raised garden beds empty so veterans could grow their own food. Shortly after the facility opened, residents began adopting the remaining raised garden beds and formed a gardening group assisted by UC Master Gardener volunteers. With help from other community service groups, UC Master Gardener volunteers coordinated the evolution of other gardens that serve as a tribute to the residents and all service members.
Wanting to beautify an undeveloped area outside the dining room where residents frequently gathered, UC Master Gardeners designed and constructed a heart-shaped rose garden in 2011. Many varieties of roses featured in the garden were donated by family or friends of residents who passed away to honor those who served. They include Peace, Proud Land, Gold Medal, Purple Heart, and Eternal Flame roses. One of the residents even constructed an arbor in the garden to support Fourth of July climbing roses.
In 2013, the daughter of a resident who passed away asked if she could make a donation for a tree to be planted in her father's memory. As she toured the site with UC Master Gardener volunteers, her vision grew. Instead of one tree, she donated an entire orchard that includes more than 75 trees and consists of 50 different fruit varieties! Together with help from the community, UC Master Gardener volunteers planted each of the trees. Today, UC Master Gardener volunteers provide education about tree maintenance in the orchard so residents can wander up and down the rows and pick fresh fruit.
In 2014, the UC Master Gardener Program of Ventura County trainees worked with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to establish a native plant garden to provide food and refuge to migrating birds, butterflies, and bees. In addition to welcoming home migratory animals, the garden became a tribute to the veterans that served in the Vietnam War and was named the "Welcome Home Garden." A Vietnam veteran and frequent visitor at the home shared his personal experience arriving home from the unpopular war. Upon his return, he recalls wishing that "… one person would say 'welcome home' to (him)." He was so moved by the garden that he wanted to contribute. The facility's maintenance supervisor promptly got a drill and screw and allowed him to mount a flag on welcome sign post.
Over the past ten years, UC Master Gardeners of Ventura County have helped reshape the landscape outside of the California Veterans Home – Ventura. What was once raw, hard ground has transformed into several beautiful gardens, each thoughtfully designed to honor the home's residents and all who serve in the U.S. military. Barbara's proud that because of the gardens, the California Veterans Center "… is not an institution, but a home."
A Message of Gratitude from the Captain – Contra Costa County
The UC Master Gardener Program in Contra Costa County is home to an exceptional volunteer, Captain Robert Archer, Aircraft Commander and Vietnam Veteran. Though Archer's educational efforts focus on soils, composting, and farmers' market outreach, he knows better than most UC Master Gardeners the impact of community gardening on health and wellbeing.
After reading a report of his fellow volunteers' work at the Martinez Veterans Administration (VA) Medical Center, Archer drafted a heartfelt letter to his UC Master Gardener volunteer community.
"Dear Fellow Master Gardeners,
I read the report for your visit to the Martinez Veterans Administration (VA) Medical Center. I go there regularly for treatment and medical exams … Your work is most appreciated."
Archer continues in his letter to detail the painful loss of his friend, Captain Gene Miller, in Vietnam and his journey to the Vietnam Wall Memorial in Washington, D.C. with his son and fellow veteran.
"I often go to the VA Clinic for treatment or a routine exam. When I see the vets who are interred there, my heart goes out to them, and I think about my dear friend Gene.
When I am driving through the city, I see persons on the street, huddled under a bridge or begging on a street corner with tattered, dirty clothing (vets and non-vets). It hurts to see these people struggling, knowing that probably no one cared enough to help them; some of them are undoubtedly veterans struggling to find their way.
I want to thank you because many vets who are residents of Veterans' Hospitals are there because they have no providers or family capable of caring for her or him, or simply nobody cares enough or has the time to do it.
My heart is full of joy that you remembered those who are often talked about, but too often forgotten.
God Bless You All,
Bob Archer, Captain
Vietnam Veteran, 158th Assault Helicopter Co.
Pre-pandemic, the UC Master Gardener Program of Contra Costa held twice monthly workshops at the Martinez Veterans Administration (VA) Medical Center. After the first workshop in 2017, UC Master Gardener volunteer Darlene DeRose wrote, "It was just amazing to watch the excitement and surprise of the vets when they realized that they were going home with three different types of containers with plantings! At the end of the workshop, we asked for feedback. The vets were unanimous in telling us that they want this to be an ongoing program. Attendees want to learn how to propagate and care for plants, and when to harvest, among many other topics."
In honor of today, the UC Master Gardener Program sends wishes of peace and wellness to all who've served in the armed forces, especially our gardening veterans.
Special thanks to Alexa Hendricks, Roanna Prell, and Nicole Vanole in Ventura and to Dawn Kooyumjian, Bob Archer, and Darlene DeRose in Contra Costa for their contributions to this story.