Wednesday, November 9, 2022

Soldiers Gardening During Wartime by Nancy Shepard


Ukrainian soldier planting potatoes in a trench in the 2022 war zone. Photo: Pravda Gerashenko 

This Friday, November 11th, is Veteran’s Day for honoring military veterans of the United States Armed Forces. I found a Jeffco CMG blog written in 2010 by Elaine Lockey that featured a book, “Defiant Gardens: Making Gardens in Wartime” by Kenneth Helphand. In the book, gardens prove to be an invaluable inspiration for people in war time. Besides the highlights of the ghetto gardens and the barbed-wire gardens of the prisoners of war and internment camps in the World Wars, soldiers themselves planted gardens in conflict war zones: the trench gardens built during WWI, Gulf War gardens built in Saudi Arabia, a base camp garden in Baghdad, Iraq, and now in in the trenches of Ukraine.

Unlike Victory Gardens known during World War II, the soldiers’ gardens were planted in precarious situations where they took comfort in the simple act of gardening.

Stationed outside Tikrit, Iraq, Army Sgts. Justin Wanzek (left) and Carl Quam Jr. grew bumper crops of food: corn, cauliflower, cucumbers and peas. Their battalion ate particularly well, but that was only part of Quam's motivation. Gardening was a way to connect to his home in North Dakota: "It helped me cope with missing them."

According to Helphand, defiant gardening often isn't about food at all. Motivations vary, but fall into five general areas:

Hope: "Planting is an optimistic act," Helphand says. "You put a seed into the ground in anticipation it will grow. It takes time, attention and maintenance. There's a miraculous aspect. Hope is embodied in all that."

Life: "Gardens are alive. They provide a connection with nature and life's forces."

Home: "Gardens either are part of or an extension of home, or places where we've lived or would like to be."

Work: "It's something to do. The garden often is part of a person's identity and culture."

Beauty: "Gardens are beautiful, and in a time of crisis that beauty is accentuated," Helphand says. "They're often strikingly dramatic when done in devastated areas."

World War I photograph of soldiers in the French trenches flanked by their planting beds. Notice the use of twigs as ornamental borders delineating each soldier's plot.

"Gardens in the war," writes Kenneth Helphand, "...exemplified the struggle to create something normal in the most abnormal conditions."

Ukranian soldiers plant onions in the trenches. Photo: Pravda Gerashenko

Gardening continues to be used as a healing treatment for soldiers suffering from PTSD and other service-related illnesses. Our own Jefferson County Master Gardeners volunteer at Valor Point, a facility for homeless veterans. I'll be writing a blog about that topic next.