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Gardens sow common ground for military families to cope with deployment stress

Gardens are, of course, a source of food and flowers, and tending them can be soothing and satisfying. But when planted by soldiers or their families, they also can be a way to connect with each other and a place to renew and reintegrate.

To give members of the military and their families such common ground, Cornell Cooperative Extension's (CCE) Defiant Gardens program plants gardens in the ground and in plastic containers on military bases and in communities with many military families and sends container gardens to U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan.

"Gardens provide a different opportunity than any oth er support because it's in nature, and it's a less obvious way of bringing people together and forming community," says Jeremiah Maxon, CCE's 4-H Defiant Gardens community educator in Jefferson County, N.Y. "It helps meet needs that military families might not know they have. A military family might not think to join a community garden when a parent deploys, but [doing so] brings them back to nature and to the community."

The program launched May 14 when program representatives helped about 30 soldiers and fa mily members at Fort Drum plant 12 container gardens purchased by Cornell's Initiative for Civic Ecology, headed by Marianne Krasny, principal investigator on the CCE Defiant Gardens project and chair of the Department of Natural Resources at Cornell, and CCE associate Keith Tidball.

By summer's end, at least seven more gardens will be in place in deployment-affected communities in Jefferson County, Buffalo and Utica, while 12 container gardens will be growing in Afghanistan, tended by the 3-71 Cavalry Unit, where many members from these communities are deployed.

Participants not only benefit from soothing gardening activities, but also by community networks formed by gardening with others. The program also allows military families to educate civilians with whom they garden about deployment issues and gives children and their deployed parent an activity in common to talk, blog and e-mail about.

The project is designed to "increase military families' resiliency as they navigate the deployment cycle, as well as assist the families with the reunion and reintegration process," said Krasny. According to Stephanie Graf, 4-H program leader with Jefferson County CCE, military personnel are the parents of nearly 2 million children in 4,000 communities across the country. The 21,253 soldiers deployed from Fort Drum have more than 10,000 youth living on the base and in neighboring upstate New York communities. Krasny is planning a study to assess how the program helps children and parents on three military bases connect with each other and build an understanding of integrated social and ecological science.

Defiant Gardens got its name from a book of the same title by Kenneth Helphand, who defines such gardens as those "created in extreme or difficult environmental, social, political, economic or cultural conditions. These gardens represent adaptation to challenging circumstances, but they can also be viewed ... as sites of assertion and affirmation."

Defiant Gardens is a partnership between CCE of Jefferson County and the Cornell Department of Natural Resources (funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Jefferson County). It has been endorsed by the National Forum on Children and Nature as a best practice for connecting children with nature.