Navy veteran Ed Maxfield (left) places a potato in the St. Michael’s College community garden as part of the Veterans Garden Initiative. (Photo by Kaylee Sullivan)

Tucked away down a dirt path and enclosed by greenery, many hands are at work this gardening season as the roots are set for potatoes, onions and friendships at the St. Michael’s College garden.

The site, located behind the college’s Pomerleau Alumni Center, is isolated from the rest of campus, creating a peaceful and welcoming oasis for students, food-based community organizations and military veterans to get their hands dirty, Vermont Veterans Affairs officials said.

For the 10 veterans who gather there three days a week, the experience provides a therapeutic opportunity to get out of the house and into nature, VA peer support specialist Josh Gerasimof said.

Milton veteran Chris Boutin agreed, saying there’s not one formula that heals everyone, so finding modes to engage in the community is essential.

“We’re growing vegetables, but people’s self esteem is growing, their health is growing, their connection to the community is growing,” Gerasimof said.

In its second year, the Veterans Garden Initiative is collaboration between the VA, St. Michael’s Garden Program and Military Community Services, Vermont Community Garden Network and Helping and Nurturing Diverse Seniors, or HANDS in the Dirt Program.

Representatives from all groups agreed there’s something special about not only growing food together, but eating it, too.

As of this week, Boutin, who has been involved in the collaboration since its launch, is digging into the reasons behind the therapeutic success of horticulture engagement. With the help of an undergraduate research grant from the college, Boutin — a student veteran and senior psychology major — will create a structure for the atypical healing avenue that contrasts clinical treatment.

Boutin said he felt motivated to explore the topic after seeing the garden inspire “complete turnaround” in a number of veterans’ lives last summer, one of them being Navy veteran Ed Maxfield.

For some veterans, gardening is a new learning experience, but for others like Maxfield and Boutin, who grew up on farms, it’s retrieved memory.

“It’s too much in my blood, I guess,” Maxfield said as he handed off a bag of potatoes ready for planting late last month.

Reminiscing on his upbringing as the son of two homesteaders in Waterville, the disabled veteran said being out in the garden last summer helped him through a long lasting, “awful bout of depression.”

“Nature can teach you a lot of things,” he said.

All last winter, Maxfield continuously asked when it’d be garden season again at St. Michael’s, Gerasimof said.

Attentively listening to instructions from college garden manager Kristyn Achilich and garden expert Charlie Nardozzi, Maxfield slowly maneuvered around the plots.

HANDS executive director Megan Humphrey, who met Maxfield before he arrived at the garden last summer, looked on in amazement at how much the experience has opened him up to conversing with those around him.

Maxfield now has a raised bed of zucchini waiting at home, too. Boutin said ideally, the program would provide seeds for veterans to grow at home.

For veterans to have positive encounters similar to Maxfield’s, all it takes is saying “yes,” Gerasimof said.

Doing so can be difficult for some, though. After being wounded in the military and handed a disability check, “It’s really easy to accept that check and sit on the couch,” he said.

That’s why he encourages veterans to discover their goals and determine what drives them.

The experience is personal to Boutin as well. After five years in the Marine Corps and another three and a half in the Vermont Army National Guard, the now 30-something man said he became recluse, too.

“Getting involved with this and seeing what I was doing was helping other veterans re-motivated me to leave my house when I didn’t want to,” he said.

Another storied encounter sprouts from the garden’s own bounty. One young veteran was confused when he saw the fresh green beans donated to the VA food shelf in Burlington. A New York City native, he’d only seen them canned.

Food not only leads to revelations such as this, but according to Jess Hyman of Vermont Community Garden Network, it’s an equalizer for all populations.

“It’s the physical activity together,” she said. “A group of people working for a common goal and a common place can help bridge barriers that might exist.”

According to Boutin, the garden grows friendships between veterans, students and community members alike, which isn’t always common in post-military life where veterans often magnet toward other veterans.

The garden, Gerasimof said, aids veterans in feeling welcomed back into society. In conjunction with community partners, the VA also offers fly-fishing and skiing. The fly-fishing program through Project Healing Waters is part of Boutin’s horticultural therapy research as well.

Boutin said his initial research stage involves looking at similar forms of rehabilitation in other communities to see what methods can be implemented in Colchester.

When Boutin graduates in May 2018, younger psychology majors will take over his role, he said. Having a stable structure in place will pave the way, aiding in future progress measurement and grant approvals, he added.

Again, Gerasimof said progress starts with that three-letter word: Yes.

“All they need is that sense of adventure,” he said.