The Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Battle Creek, Mich., has made plants and gardens part of its healing program for veterans for more than 60 years. At one time the hospital, located on 70 acres, was nearly self-sustaining, with orchards, vegetable gardens, dairy and beef cattle and a root cellar.
Today there are beautifully landscaped gardens and four 2,500-square-foot greenhouses. Veterans care for the plants as part of two work therapy programs offered by the hospital.
“In my work therapy program, guys are here specifically for mental health or substance abuse issues,” says Laura Singh, therapeutic horticulturist at the hospital. “Each one is unique — it could be brain injuries, post-traumatic stress disorder or just anxiety issues from being in the service. Working with plants just calms people and helps with the whole healing process. It’s empowering to work with plants because you’re caring for something else.”
Sales of the plants grown in the greenhouses pay for the program, including the patients’ salaries. About 50 veterans participate. Some stay on year after year and others graduate and get jobs.
Thousands of plants are grown each year in the greenhouses: foliage plants, potted annuals, hanging baskets, mums, herbs, poinsettias and tomatoes — lots of tomatoes.
“We grew 1,000 tomatoes this year,” Singh says. “ Mostly, we grow the heirloom tomatoes — people love those. But we also grow some of the really solid varieties like ‘Celebrity.’ We grew four types of cannas, and dahlias were a big hit this year. We have bananas in the conservatory and even divide those out to sell a few. We grow about 600 poinsettias each year, and they have been popular lately because a lot of growers aren’t doing them anymore. We also make Christmas wreaths, cutting the greens ourselves from the properties of people who give us permission to do so.”
The plants are sold wholesale to schools or churches for fundraisers and to hospital employees. The hospital doesn’t advertise or market to the public.
Singh says being able to work outside is important for those suffering from mental illness.
“We are so lucky to have management that thinks it is important to have a healing environment,” she says. “The grounds are healing not only for the veterans, but for the staff, families and visitors who come here.”
It’s vital for the veterans to have a purpose, Singh says, and her programs give patients a reason to get up every day.
“The patients are the best part of the program,” she says. “We all need to work. Finding what you want to do — your passion — there’s nothing better than that.”