Heroic Gardens

Drive On Podcast With Scott DeLuzio
Drive On Podcast
Heroic Gardens

Collie Turner talks to us about her company Heroic Gardens and how it helps veterans and service members "grow hope" by connecting them with plants and nature.

Collie explains that even if you don't have a green thumb, the process can be very therapeutic. Through Heroic Gardens, veterans and service members can get access to the knowledge, tools, as well as the materials that they need to set up their very own garden. If the individual doesn't have access to a yard or outdoor area to plant a garden, they can get it set up inside their home on a space as small as a windowsill.

If you've been considering getting into gardening or want to learn why it might be beneficial to you, give this episode a listen and head on over to Heroic Gardens' website to find out more about it.

Links & Resources


Scott DeLuzio:    00:03    Thanks for tuning in to the Drive On Podcast, where we talk about issues affecting Veterans after they get out of the military. Before we get started, I'd like to ask a favor if you haven't done so already, please rate and review the show on Apple podcast. If you've already done that, thank you. These ratings help the show get discovered so it can reach a wider audience. And while you're there click the subscribe button so that you get notified of new episodes. As soon as they come out. If you don't use Apple podcasts, you can visit DriveOnPodcast.com/subscribe to find other ways of subscribing, including our email lists. I'm your host, Scott DeLuzio. And now let's get on with the show.

Scott DeLuzio:    00:45    Hey everybody. Today, my guest is Kali Turner. Kali is the founder of Heroic Gardens, which is a nonprofit whose mission is to connect Veterans, active duty, and their families with plants and nature. So welcome to the show. Why don't you tell us a little bit about yourself and your background?

Collie Turner:    01:08    Sure. Hi Scott. Thanks for having me on. Heroic Gardens actually started two years ago. We started in 2018 and personally my background relating to even wanting to start this as I am a daughter of a Veteran, the granddaughter of a Veteran,  I have grown up around the American Legion auxiliary and the VFW, my entire life, and the flip side of this is that gardening has always been the norm in my family. So, my grandparents were very big gardeners, very sustainable. My mother was a conservationist. So, combining the two, I had no idea, early on that this was something that I would be pursuing, but as time went on, it just made so much sense

Collie Turner:    02:01    from a healing perspective. So thinking about what I'm doing in the garden, things I'm contemplating the Headspace that I'm clearing, and it wasn't really until I was taking care of my grandmother and I had realized that she had never applied for my grandfather's death benefits. So, I went through that whole process.  It took about three years but I did meet somebody in my local, VA who actually helped me shepherd it through. And what was interesting about her is that wasn't her primary job. Her job was actually to find homes for our servicemen and women when they were coming back from overseas. So that's a huge job, right? She takes time out of her schedule to help me with my grandmother who at the time was about 93, receive these benefits.

Collie Turner:    02:58    And initially when this happened, I wanted to figure out how can I help her?  What can I do to give back, anybody can write a check.  It was so much deeper of a connection than that. So, I started thinking about when these guys and gals are coming back and they are securing homes, is there an opportunity for us to add on to that and help them with their landscaping? So, it was this simple idea in my mind that I was swirling around for a couple of years.  I didn't know what I was really thinking about because it is so much deeper than that.  It does play into what we offer now. I mean, we are a hundred percent volunteer based, but what we offer is that opportunity to come out and help a Veteran in need with the restoration of the property. And that helps with teaching them about sustainability, teaching them about the connection with plants and how it can help reduce stress and anxiety. but it also helps them with beautification and pride. So that's just one service, but when we started, that was sort of our main function.

Scott DeLuzio:    04:20    Awesome. That's a great answer. I always like hearing the background stories, where people came from and how they got started doing what they're doing and why they're doing the type of stuff that they're doing. Let's talk about gardening specifically. What is it about the gardening, in and of itself that acts as a benefit to Veterans or the military community, the people that you're working with; what is the benefit for them to get their hands in the dirt and work with the plants and things like that? What is the actual benefit that they are seeing from that?

Collie Turner:    05:14    Yes, it's a great question.  So, first off let's think about plants, everybody out there, just pause for a minute if you're near a window, what are you looking at? What's potentially outside, or what's on your windowsill?  There are plants everywhere around us, right? So, think back to seventh grade science class, and one of the many things that they are giving off is oxygen, right? We need that to breathe. So, plants are a part of who we are fundamentally in our fiber, but guess what? We eat them. We wear them, they're in our building materials and their nature outside. They were meant to be hand in hand with who we are as humans. So what did they do to help us? Well when you're working with plants, it's actually scientifically proven that you can help reduce stress or fatigue, depression, pain, those sorts of elements, right? The symptoms of ADHD and where you see the improvements, it's been proven are things like bone strength or your concentration, your ability to be a little bit more empathetic, and your overall mood and relaxation. So, you can get some of the elements that you might find in exercising or having an animal or painting. It has all of those elements. It's just being out in nature, connecting with something that inherently as a human being you should be anyway.

Scott DeLuzio:    07:10    It's interesting on this show, I've had several people on talking about different things that they have done or are helping other people do too, you're using alternative forms of therapy, whether it's art or something else like getting outside and going on hikes and that type of thing that people are doing to reconnect with nature, getting outside with the artwork, maybe going out and painting a landscape or something, getting back out into nature and it's interesting to see just another example of being outside, getting involved with the plants themselves and how that could possibly be helping people with these things like PTSD, anxiety, and other conditions like that.

Scott DeLuzio:    08:25     So it's interesting to hear how that works but I can imagine that a part of it is just being mindful of things that are going on around you if you're tending to a garden, and you forget about it for a week or two or three, it's probably not going to work out too well. You know, if you aren't reading it and fertilizing and all this other stuff that it's almost taking care of an animal or perhaps even a child or something along those lines where you do have to be present to take care of these things and be mindful of what's going on is it getting too much water, not enough water, all that type of stuff, you really have to be thinking about it. I could see grounding, excuse the pun, but grounding people to be more present and focused on the world around them.

Collie Turner:    09:33    Yeah, you absolutely got that right. You are caring for a living thing. It's not just putting a plant in the ground and watching it grow. There are other aspects. There is this whole world and ecosystem going on in a garden.  If you've ever seen a bug's life, it is really true.  Just being still and watching, you can learn so much about a plant, about the ground in front of you, the animals and insects that live there, the pollinators that live there, and what their functions are.  Anybody can read all of this in the books or can go online, but why not experience it firsthand?

Scott DeLuzio:    10:28    Yeah, sure. Yeah. And our neighborhood that we live in, there's a gardening club of sorts. I forget the exact name of it now, and a few of the local parks that are in our neighborhood, they have these big, concrete planters that are filled with the dirt and everything. And every so often they go out and they plant new plants in there, whether it's vegetables and there's sometimes just different types of plants. And it's there for the community to enjoy, the neighborhood to enjoy when you're at the park with your kids, you can see the plants growing and things like that. But I imagine that the people who are involved in that community, can get together and they work together as a team.

Scott DeLuzio:    11:25     and they do the gardening together everything from planting the seeds to checking up on the plants periodically, I'm sure that's all teamwork driven. They're all taking care of it together, which to me as a Veteran, after getting out of the military, you miss out on that comradery and that teamwork aspect that comes with being in the military. I could see that this is perhaps another way of working in that teamwork aspect.

Collie Turner:    12:04    Yeah. I love that. You just said that because one of the most gratifying things has been seeing our Veterans and civilians coming together to basically fulfill a mission. And usually when we work on a property, we have teams, right? So you're randomly assigned to a team. You don't know when you volunteer, if you're going to just be all civilians, if you will have a Veteran involved.  What's been even more gratifying is when we are working on a Veteran’s property, the number of Veterans that actually come out, which of course, they always want to help. They will drive great lengths to come out. And then the conversations that ensue even amongst different branches.  These are conversations that us as civilians, we can understand, but it is so powerful to watch and it's occurring while we're building a patio or we're planting flowers, or we're digging a trench, which we have done all of these things or we're taking out bamboo with a backhoe.

Collie Turner:    13:21    I mean, things I'd never thought I'd say in my lifetime. All of these things are happening and it is incredible to get ROTC students with Veterans and so where I look at it as we are providing, the situation in the outdoors, no matter if it's at an individual Veteran's home or it's at a transitional housing unit, which it could be, it could be somewhere in the community. It could be at a park. We are providing that space for this group of individuals to come together and have an experience.

Scott DeLuzio:    14:07   And so you mentioned that the various locations, where these gardens are.  Where are these gardens typically happening? Are they specific to a Veteran's home or could anyone across the country be able to take advantage of the type of resources that you offer?

Collie Turner:    14:42    That's a great question. And so, it goes back to the original idea, and our services. So, we really started by saying, okay in the simplest form, we're going to help Veterans on a fixed income, restore their properties. That sounds good. But what it has mushroomed into is, “Hey, you know what, within our communities (I'm based right outside of Philadelphia) we have Veterans that are living in transitional housing, and they have outdoor spaces available to them that haven't been touched or they've been touched, but maybe they aren't ADA compliant. That drives me bananas because we've got folks that have come back disabled and they can't even get out into a courtyard because there was no access. So, we try to look at things like that, where we can actually help, even understanding where they have the water source.

Collie Turner:    15:49    And then what we do is we work with those Veterans to either do a couple of things, because you'd be surprised a lot of folks know a lot about plants, they just don't talk about it.  But if they're given the opportunity, and the choice, guess what, we have this whole different kind of conversation. So what we do is we go out and we talk with either the individual Veteran or the Veterans that might be living in this particular space, we find out what they want, what are their favorite colors, what triggers an amazing memory of their childhood and we involve them in that process and then we also talk about things like, do they cook? Depending upon where they live, what's important, because we could be also installing herbs.

Collie Turner:    16:45    And we joke about the idea of a pizza garden, but how amazing is that. And before COVID, we were planning to do a light cart inside in a Veteran's center where these guys would actually be responsible for growing all of the pizza garden related materials. And then we would harvest, we would have the pizza party and we would also dry some of the herbs for spices to have in the cafeteria. So, I think plants are so embedded in our lives that we just forget about not only, how important they are, but we also forget about how things are made and could we actually be a part of that? So, the other thing I want to mention from a service perspective is we also help Veterans grow plants, indoors, and we also offer horticultural therapy activities.

Collie Turner:    17:52    And so what does that mean? Well, literally it's the opportunity in a small group to get together and do some sort of activity.  It just feels good, right? It may not be planting a seed and some soil, but it's something related to plants.  It's just what it sounds like horticulture therapy. It's the art of plants as it pertains to healing. So, we offer that and what we've learned, especially last year we did a lot with female Veterans, it opens up the room. So, you find Veterans that may not have been talking to one another, all of a sudden, they are collaborating on a project.  They're expressing their opinion, they're making a choice about how they want something to look, it's incredible and doing this on a consistent basis. It's all about a relationship that is developing in a friendship, frankly. So, we're trying to do a lot.

Scott DeLuzio:    19:09    It sounds like it. Well, one thing that you mentioned earlier, and I didn't want to stop you as you were talking about that, but one thing that you mentioned was some of the indoor gardening activities that you do. That was a question that I had, because there are some people,  Veterans especially, who might live in an apartment and they don't necessarily have access to a backyard that they can go out and garden, or maybe there's a community space that they have access to, but they don't necessarily have access to plant a garden in that community outdoor space or whatever.  So, what does that look like for somebody who's gardening space is confined more to the indoors? What does that look like for those types of people?

Collie Turner:    20:06    Yeah, that's a great question, because that was one of the questions actually early on when we first started that was some of the pushback we got from the city, from some of the,  the housing groups, because they said, “well, we don't have a space, so we can't use you.” And it couldn't be further from the truth. And in fact, having COVID occur has really fortified how we can do this indoors.

Collie Turner:    20:45    So we're based in the Delaware Valley, but this is an opportunity I think to help Veterans get involved nationally.  We are starting a program called Mission Windowsill. And the idea is that you can register with us to receive a windowsill kit. And so, it comes with all of the things that you will need.  All the elements, soil, seeds, pots, and some instructions so you can grow something on your window. So, if you have a windowsill, everybody out there, if you have a window, you can grow anything.  What's amazing about this is we're not just shipping it off and saying, have a good time. We actually want people to register because we want to follow up with zoom calls. We want to teach you about this. We want you to feel satisfied.

Collie Turner:    21:40    We want to know when you have successes. We want to know if something's not working, because you need to realize that you're not alone. We were talking about this earlier, there have been many plants that allegedly they're extremely easy to grow and I have killed them.  That's just putting it out there and I know I'm not alone, but the consistency and the comradery and watching things grow, and knowing that other people are out there are doing the same thing at the same time, we're just so excited about the idea of this and it could happen nationally.

Scott DeLuzio:    22:19    Especially with things like zoom calls that are becoming more and more popular these days, especially with COVID, the situation that we all find ourselves in here, we have access to this technology. Why not put it to good use you're providing this service, but just because you're in one part of the country, doesn't mean that somebody on the other side of the country can't benefit from this as well. You know, it's not like the old days where a phone call across the country costs more than it did down the street.

Scott DeLuzio:    22:59    So, you can hop on a zoom call with someone in California, just as easily as you could in Pennsylvania or somewhere else.  I think it's great that there's access to do this no matter what your living situation is, as long as you have a window so that you can start growing all sorts of different types of plants and this answer might just be that it varies but what is the time commitment that someone would be looking at in order to build a successful garden? Is this something that takes weeks, months or is this something that is going to evolve over time as they improve their skills?

Collie Turner:    23:46    So, are we talking about indoor or outdoor, Scott?

Scott DeLuzio:  Let's go with both.

Collie Turner:  Alright, well, let's talk about outdoor for a minute, because when we actually have an application process and we ask a lot of questions around that, because what we want to know is do you live with your family?  Who's going to be tending to this. Are you tending to this? Are you going to be helping watch this? We also want to know about your property. We want to know what kind of shade you have, all those things that you might want.  So, think about that. That is as a homeowner or renter, you might not think about. I've had somebody say to me, I live in a condo, so I don't think you can help me. And I completely disagree because they have a porch. They just don't know what to grow. So, here's the thing. And let's go back to your comment about a living thing.

Collie Turner:    24:55    Anybody can plant seeds and germinate, but they do need care. And so, it's all about what you need, what you want to do. If you want to grow several flowers or a little plot of flowers, you will inherently feel like you need to check on them. I want to say almost daily. Every morning, especially like in Pennsylvania we don't have things year round, but from spring to fall, every morning I usually get up early and I exercise, but from spring to fall, I get up early and I walk through my gardens because it's sort of like its own routine, meditation, checking to see who did what overnight. And they will do things overnight, understanding who needs to be trimmed or who needs water.

Collie Turner:    25:58    It does vary. And it really also becomes like a science experiment. So, I may have started with one area and then I dug out another area and then I dug out another flower bed. And we want that excitement with the Veterans that we serve, we want them to say, wow, I love that. How do I make more of it? Because then we start teaching them about propagating plants. You don't have to go out to a big box store every time you want to start something new; somebody may already have it in your community. It may already be growing in your yard; all have to do is transplant it.  So very long-winded way, Yes. I'm agreeing with you. It totally varies, but you become attached to this living thing. You want to see it reach this maturity to give off flowers or vegetables or whatever it is that you planted with that intention.

Scott DeLuzio:    27:07    And as you were talking, a thought just popped to my head too.  When I was a kid growing up, my grandfather had a huge garden in his backyard. He'd come home from work. He worked in a factory. He came home from work and he'd go out in the yard and he'd do it. That was his routine. He'd go out and he'd either pull weeds or make sure the plants are getting watered or whatever it was that the plants needed at that time he'd go through and he'd do that. And that was his sort of his decompression time where he can unwind from the day, he had a long day at the factory and everything that he was doing. It was he needed that time to decompress, but there's also a little bit of a sense of pride when you take this almost nothing you have a plot of land and you turn it into all of these plants whether they're vegetables or whether they're flowers or whatever the case may be.

Scott DeLuzio:    28:17     There's a sense of pride in seeing that the work that you're putting into it is actually paying off and that's something that I realized from him as he was growing up as I was growing up and watching him sometimes going out into the yard and everything, seeing that he was proud of what he was able to create. And sometimes he'd come over our house and he'd have a basket full of tomatoes or something and he'd bring them over and share them with us and share them with other people. And it was a look see what I did like this is this thing that I created. And I want to share it with you and it was just cool too!

Collie Turner:    29:03    And I think you bring up a really good point and that is the Veterans that I've had an opportunity to meet and work with. It is all about sharing. It's not just the task at hand, but it's how do I turn this out to the community and help the community? Well, spot on. I'm glad that gave you that emotional memory. That's awesome.

Scott DeLuzio:    29:28    And, and it's strange too, because as we were talking about that, I remember  just a week or two ago, I was cutting up some vegetables with my wife before dinner and there was something about the peppers that I was cutting up, that the smell of it just took me back to that garden, where my grandfather was growing these vegetables all these years ago. This is over, I don't even want to say how long ago now it was…it was a long time ago. And it took me back to that. I almost felt like I was standing in their backyard, in my grandparents' backyard, with just the smells. I know smell is a powerful trigger for different types of emotions and stuff like that.

Scott DeLuzio:    30:20    But I feel like if you are in a position where you're just bogged down with so many negative, bad emotions from things like the trauma that comes with war and things like that, I can only see that it would help to replace some of those negative emotions and negative memories with some positive and good ones that maybe you might get with having a garden and working in the garden. And I'm sure there's going to be some good times that you're going to have while you're doing that. If you could replace some of those memories, I only see that as a plus.

Collie Turner:    31:06    Yeah. I love that you said that. That is exactly what we are able to be a witness to when we're working. I really do try, if a Veteran says to me, “do you have…” and they described the plant. Do you know of this, it reminds me of my grandmother. And if I could see that again, and we really try depending on the time of year, and depending on what we can get, we really try to make that happen because that is that initial connection. And to your point, like the sensory component to memory and just happy, calm, that's huge, absolutely huge.

Scott DeLuzio:    32:00    Yeah, absolutely. And the memories that I have are not necessarily of me doing anything in particular in the garden, because I didn't really get it. That was kind of his baby. And I didn't really get involved in the garden too much other than when it came time to maybe pick some of the vegetables and things like that. But I I'd be outside in the yard playing all the time with my cousins, my brother and other kids that would be around there.  We'd be outside playing and those are good memories, but the smell of the garden would be there. And it brings you back to those happy, fun times, those memories, and things that happen at family events that took place there. So, that's another segue.

Collie Turner:    32:49    No, you know what, it's wonderful because it makes me realize too, that those of us that are volunteers with the organization and we work with plants all the time, we take it for granted because we know everyone must know. And so to your point, it's an opportunity that I think we could look even more closely at to help people understand, gosh you could grow some earth or what's your favorite dish that you remember growing up and let's relate it to that. And guess what, you can grow it. You can have that again; you can recreate that memory and that's really important.

Scott DeLuzio:    33:34    Yeah. And the other thing that you mentioned earlier too, was the habit or the routine of going out in the garden and checking on the plants and things like that. And there's something to be said for these habits that we create for ourselves and get ourselves in a good routine where perhaps someone is I don't know, they're in a rut, they're in a funk, and I know these are not technical terms or anything, but they maybe have these bad habits of whether it's drinking or they're not doing the right things that they should be doing. If you can replace some of those bad habits with good habits, I know for myself, just like yourself you get up in the morning and you go exercise and things like that.

Scott DeLuzio:    34:32    I've made that a habit and it's a rare occasion, I'm either really sick or I've injured myself somehow, if I'm not exercising.  There's that, or other things that you might do, but you create these good habits and it's almost like brushing your teeth in the morning. Like you wake up, you get out of bed and that's just something you do, you go brush your teeth and you get on with your day. But if you can take one of these habits, it's something like gardening and you make it a part of your day. You almost feel like you're missing something like your day's not complete unless you've done this

Collie Turner:    35:19    Absolutely. At the end, when we finish up, I will go out and I will maybe do some watering, just make sure everybody's tucked in, ready to go. I mean that this day is not over until I finished that out. And you brought up another good point in that is the exercise piece. There's an opportunity here to really get some good exercise depending upon what you're doing, but it is if anybody has an Apple watch or an app on their phone, gardening is an activity and it does burn calories and I have seen it.  We have a Marine Veteran on our board and I have seen him break many shovels digging holes for us to put trees in. And we kind of joke all the time because he's like, “I'm getting a workout that I'm unfamiliar with. Never mind that he ran 10 miles before he came to volunteer.

Scott DeLuzio:    36:28    If there's anything that those of us in the military community or are good at, it's digging holes and we can do that part pretty well.

Collie Turner:    36:42    Well, funny enough, we actually started a YouTube channel with everything with COVID. And again, because we know we have all this knowledge in our head and we thought, well, how can we get that out there? And we're actually partnering with Blue Star Academy, which is an online school for military connected kids. And this is part of their take a break platform. So, learn something new that is outside of school. And so part of that was to put these activities on a YouTube channel. So, what we're doing is, teach how to plant a seed you're using a Dixie cup, which is awesome because everybody has some sort of a cup like that laying around the house and Popsicle sticks. But it's also about learning how to compost, learning how to build a rock garden. We're getting ready to do a bath for butterflies, things that are inherently potentially in the spaces of anybody. And while they're at home, these are things you can all do to fortify the surroundings, not only for yourself, but to improve, for our pollinators, which ultimately impact our food source. So, without even really getting into the heaviness and the science of it, you are creating a component of a sustainable footprint, which is awesome.

Scott DeLuzio:    38:13    That is. All of that intertwines together. It might seem like just a small little thing that you might be doing, but it all comes together, which is awesome. Well, it has been great talking to you about all of this.  Is there anything else that you might want people to know to take away from listening to this episode about what it is that you do or gardening in general, or anything else that maybe we haven't covered?

Collie Turner:    38:36    I mean, the only thing I would encourage people to think about doing this in their own yard, on their own window sill, we are always available, visit us at Heroic Gardens.org and ask us a question, let us know where you are, how we can help, because there are definitely organizations across the country that are doing things like this. And a lot of times I've found that the female Veteran population tends to reach out to us more frequently than the male Veteran population. This is for everybody. So however, we can serve you, is our primary goal.

Scott DeLuzio:    39:46    No, that's great. And I would encourage anybody who has even the slightest interest in this, whether male or female to reach out, visit their website, HeroicGardens.org, and I'll have links to their website and all the social media accounts and everything on the show notes. So, you can check that out there for the show.  Collie, thank you very much for sharing what it is that you're doing and for what it is that you are doing in helping out Veterans in the military community with everything that you do.

Collie Turner:    40:24    Well, Scott, thank you. Thanks for your service and thank you to everybody listening out there for protecting our freedom.

Scott DeLuzio:    40:32    All right. Thank you.

Scott DeLuzio:    40:37    Thanks for listening to the Drive On Podcast. If you want to check out more episodes or learn more about the show, you can visit our website, DriveOnPodcast.com. We're on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram at DriveOnPodcast.