BY GINA MALONE | BLUERIDGENOW.COM
The Environmental and Conservation Organization will have its seventh annual Green Homes and Edible Gardens Tour on Saturday with seven noteworthy stops to educate tour participants on solar installations, small-house design, sustainable agriculture, urban community gardening and more. Homeowners and gardeners will be at each stop on the self-driving tour to answer questions, conduct tours and tell their stories.
Among them will be John and Nicole Mahshie, whose Veterans Healing Farm provides a communal gardening experience for veterans and civilians in a pastoral setting off Highway 64. Their garden of 27 rows, each 50 feet long, embraces many sustainable farming techniques, “a variety of schools of thought integrated,” as John Mahshie describes it. He began the experimental garden last year, and this is the first official year of Veterans Healing Farm as an organization aimed at helping veterans transition from military to civilian life.
A veteran of the Air Force, Mahshie sees a real need for ways to ease veterans back into civilian life. After obtaining a certificate in horticulture from Blue Ridge Community College and cultivating gardens of his own, he sees gardening as a way to provide physical, emotional and spiritual health. “In our culture,” he said, “it’s so easy to be isolated.”
Veterans, he thinks, especially those combat veterans who have faced death and dying, benefit from a chance “to cultivate and nurture life.” He cites the high suicide rate (22 per day according to Stars and Stripes) among veterans who often feel disconnected and bereft of the sense of community they felt among fellow soldiers while enlisted. Many groups that aid veterans concentrate on helping them find jobs or financial security, but, as Mahshie sees it, there are many more facets that need to be addressed so veterans can cope well with all aspects of their lives, besides just finances.
Of the 17 families who are members of the farm this year, there is a mix of veterans and civilians, “cross-pollination,” as Mahshie calls it. A “healthy balance” is achieved, he believes, when the group is composed of people from all walks of life. There is an assimilation of people with different backgrounds, political viewpoints and religious beliefs. “When we share a meal, break bread together, there is so much we have in common,” he said. Friendships evolve out of this shared sense of community and common interest in gardening despite individual differences — a lot like the way the military works.
The group gets together every Sunday for a potluck dinner in the grassy area by the garden where there are tables, a grill and fire pit and room for children — including the Mahshies’ own daughters, Anna-Joy, 5, and Penelope, 18 months — to run and play.
Many aspects of Veterans Healing Farm are “naturals” for an environmentally focused garden tour. For instance, the Mahshies use a permaculture technique called Hugelkultur, a centuries-old Eastern European technique of planting on a high mound of soil covering logs that slowly decay, providing organic matter to the roots of the plants growing above.
John Mahshie’s mound contains eight plants, including blueberries and green beans. The height of the mound lends itself, he said, to picking produce from a wheelchair without having to bend to do so. Other sustainable techniques of the rest of the garden include wood chips as mulch to keep down the weeds, wide rows, drip irrigation, companion planting to keep down pests, and crop rotation. “It’s not technically organic,” Mahshie said of their garden, “but it uses many organic practices.”
With all of the techniques put into practice, the garden has proven so self-sustaining that there has been little maintenance, the Mahshies say. They had planned to have a weeding schedule among members, but have not found it necessary. Heirloom tomato plants taller than John Mahshie’s own 6-foot frame are loaded with fruit. The heirloom plants were grafted onto hybrid plant root stock, Mahshie said, which means that their yield is three times what one would normally get from an heirloom plant.
The garden contains more than 20 different fruits and vegetables, with multiple varieties of each to protect against blights and other potential devastations. As these summer crops play out, about 20 more will be put in for harvest into the fall. Nearby on the property are newly planted fruit trees, berry vines and an organic hops yard. Besides a place for veterans to connect back to everyday life, “it’s also for civilians transitioning into sustainability,” Mahshie said. Many of the members are novice gardeners, he said, adding “I love to teach and to share.”
Mahshie displays a passion for gardening and believes it encourages healthful practices all the way around, including eating well, getting physical exercise and connecting to nature. “You have a soul and a spirit experience, regardless of what you call it,” he said of spending time outdoors.
Photos by Mike Dirks