In working the soil at the Veterans Community Garden in northeast Vancouver, disabled veteran, Mike Harding found relief from his court fines and the post-traumatic stress disorder from his days as a helicopter pilot in Vietnam.

“It’s a mind-calming experience, and it also leads to feeling accomplished, that you’re doing something you can see,” said Harding, 67, a retired high school teacher. He left the classroom in 2001 when he came down with cancer due to Agent Orange herbicide exposure in the Army.

Growing food for needy veterans and the homeless was also a gratifying part of the garden experience, where he earned credit for community service hours and court fines.

“It was just really wonderful to work there and do something that was going to result in food for someone,” said Harding, finishing his community service. “I didn’t mind being here at all.” (He didn’t want to talk about what got him in trouble.)

In its first season, the garden has donated more than 3,600 pounds of fresh produce to groups, including the Clark County Veterans Assistance Center, Share, and Meals on Wheels.

Located at the Mabry Center, a Clark County Corrections Work Crew facility at 8101 N.E. 117th Ave., the veterans garden has an in-ground plot for vegetables, sunflowers, and fruit trees, plus free-standing tomato planters and raised planting beds that people in wheelchairs can tend. County employees and offender work crews harvest produce twice a week: corn, squash, broccoli, kale, raspberries, tomatoes, beets, cucumbers, cauliflower, green beans, kohlrabi, garlic, lettuce, and more. No chemicals are used.

The garden was conceived as a place for disabled military veterans who aren’t physically able to serve on a work crew, which is a sentencing alternative to jail. Harding was one of the only veterans involved this first season, but organizers hope to bring more veterans next year.

Lisa Biffle, the work crew program manager, came up with the idea for converting Mabry’s vacant land into a garden site while talking with her husband, a disabled veteran.

“This used to be a field. Nobody enjoyed mowing it,” said Biffle, who pitched the idea to District Court Judge Darvin Zimmerman, founder of the nonprofit Clark County Veterans Court Board.

Given the go-ahead, Biffle began soliciting donations of materials from businesses, “and it just took off,” she said.

Work crew offenders dug out the in-ground beds last fall. Work crew chiefs, and county employees built the raised beds over the winter using plastic culvert pipes donated by Advanced Drainage Solutions of Washougal. Territorial Seed Company donated seeds. Bob Colf Construction donated soil. The 78th Street Heritage Farm contributed tomato plants. A group of low-income youths raised $1,500 for a garden tool shed and plant starts. On May 16, Clark County Drug Court participants and their families planted the garden in an event called “Planting the Seeds of Recovery.”

The regular work crew offenders live at home and report to duty on their days off. When they initially found out the produce would be given to the needy, they became energized and more than willing to help, Biffle said.

The recipient charities are glad to have fresh produce to hand out.

“If they come in here and they want those vegetables, we give them all they can stand,” said Roxanne Clark, a veterans service officer at the Veterans Assistance Center.

Next year, the garden will offer 14 plots measuring about 8 by 15 feet to non-work-crew veterans to farm. And there’s plenty of land available for expansion — and a place for gardeners to relax in the shade. An effort to raise money for a wheelchair-accessible, covered picnic area at the garden has raised about $18,000.

Zimmerman called the garden project “a great thing” because rather than lock up offenders for $84 a day in jail, non-violent offenders can work off their sanctions and fines. In Cowlitz County, he noted, jail inmates grow to produce for their meals, “so there are all types of potential to expand ours in the future,” he said.

Harding said the work crew garden brought back pleasant memories of growing up on his family’s Salmon Creek dairy farm.

“I was really pleased that they turned me loose with a shovel and a wheelbarrow and a watering hose and said, ‘Go get ’ ’em,’ ” he said.

Donations to the Clark County Veterans Court Board, which financially supports the garden project, can be made at or at any Riverview Community Bank Branch.

Originally posted on The Columbian