Crystal Timmons and her husband Robert, an Army veteran, spent Saturday afternoon with about 10 volunteers building two raised garden beds in the backyard of a St. Augustine home. Once assembled, the gardens were filled with organic peppers, garlic chives, cabbage and cauliflower.
It was a test run for the Veteran Garden Project, a recently formed nonprofit and passion project for the couple. The goal is to build a community for local vets while teaching them how to plant and grow their own backyard organic garden.
“Getting your hands in the soil and being outside breathing the fresh air and being around plants, there is scientific evidence behind it that it helps anxiety and builds our immunity and other positive benefits,” Crystal Timmons said.
The idea started after the couple found its own healing through working with plants.
Robert Timmons spent 10 years in the Army and was seriously injured twice while serving in Afghanistan. When he returned home in 2008, he thought he was fine. He wasn’t. A few years later, after he retired, he says his life started to spiral out of control.
“I had bad episodes of anger. I just couldn’t handle it,” Timmons said Thursday.
Timmons said he became isolated, addicted to pain medicine, started using hard drugs. Eventually he hit rock bottom. During the dark times, Crystal Timmons said she went looking for holistic ways to help her family. Around that time she learned about permaculture, the development of agricultural ecosystems intended to be sustainable and self-sufficient. The two started attending nursery and greenhouse management classes together at First Coast Technical College and graduated last April.
Soon after, the idea for the Veteran Garden Project started to grow.
“Now I want to make it not just about our healing, but make it about helping others,” Crystal Timmons said.
In 2019, the Veteran Garden Project will offer six scholarships to local veterans who will be awarded their own home garden, a 4- b -8-foot raised bed complete with tools, seeds, training and support. A group of vets and other volunteers will then come to the selected homes and build the garden in a few hours. (Applications are available at VeteranGardenProject.org.)
“It’s a non-intrusive way for vets to take care of other vets,” said Sherri Cunningham, a Navy veteran and board member whose backyard served as the garden test site Saturday.
Robert Timmons said the project offers a community for younger vets like him in St. Augustine. Most of the local hubs for vets, he said, draw an older crowd.
Leon Ciesla, an Army veteran and volunteer with the project, was one of those helping out Saturday.
“It gives people the chance to do something they might not have been able to do before,” Ciesla said. “It’s very healing when you are working with plants and things that are growing.”
Crystal and Robert Timmons hope Saturday’s project is just the beginning. If everything goes according to plan, the six veterans who receive the scholarship will, in turn, help others and bring in more members to the group of around 40 that are currently involved. Eventually, that will allow the group to build a couple gardens for vets each month.
“It’s been a lifesaver for me and I believe a lot of people that are members now,” Robert Timmons said. “I think we got something good.”