Equipped with work gloves and a small shovel, Jemila Rosenthal puts her hair in a ponytail and walks over to the garden. In a few minutes, she is deep in the soil and pulling out large stalks of celery.
The scorching summer heat and pesky bugs aren’t enough to stop her from cultivating her plants because for Jemila and other community members, the gardening is more than a hobby.
“I went through a period where I had a really hard time being around people,” said Rosenthal, who served in the Army for three years. “It was not my natural state of being, I needed to get out.”
She said she struggled to find a group of people she could trust and feel comfortable with. That was until she found Gardening for Good.
Located on Madison’s North Side, Gardening for Good is a nonprofit shared gardening experience for local veterans. The program’s purpose is to create a space for veterans and their families to garden and grow in their own neighborhood.
Three years since its creation, the program is an easygoing welcoming community of diverse people and experiences.
“The gardening has been really relaxing and helpful for me,” Rosenthal said. “I really wanted to be around people gardening, especially other vets, and this is perfect.”
Growing up with an unstable housing situation and receiving help from the Madison School District for a speech impediment, Savion Castro hopes to use his experience in Madison schools now that he is part of the board.
Every Monday morning, the group of veterans and their families come together to look after the four 20-by-40-foot plots growing a multitude of vegetables, including onions, tomatoes, potatoes, herbs, leeks, broccoli, Brussels sprouts and cauliflower.
Members help each other plant, grow and harvest the crops, sharing casual conversation and refreshments for their potluck-style lunches.
The gardening has been a valuable outlet for recovering veterans, said Matthew Heldman, peer specialist at the Department of Veterans Affairs who served in the Air Force for four years.
“It’s very therapeutic to be out here in the soil and give back to the vets,” Heldman said. “As a veteran, this is something I want other veterans to know about.”
Heldman has worked with the VA to introduce Gardening for Good to other veterans in the Madison area.
“The community made the program, and I’m just happy to be here,” he said.
The emphasis on community has been there since the beginning, said Marge Pitts, who founded Gardening for Good in 2016 with a few other community members. Her goal was to create a small gardening club for her veteran friends, but the program grew to roughly 10 members.
“A community garden is somewhere people can get natural therapy, and Gardening for Good is exactly what I had in mind, exactly why I gave so much of my time to it,” said Pitts, who served on the Troy Gardens’ board of directors for 27 years before creating the program.