DANVILLE — When the world gets overwhelming, patients and staff at the Veterans Affairs Illiana Health Care System can find tranquility in their backyard.
“The worries of the world melt away,” said Jennifer Musall, nurse manager for Victory House at the VA.
“Your heart just fills up,” Master Gardener Rhonda Ruhnow said, as she surveyed the neat garden, which used to be a service drive.
Since it opened about nine years ago, the healing garden has been accessible to veterans and staff only.
Now, the public will have a chance on a Sunday afternoon to step through the wooden gate and into a secluded world carefully tended by Master Gardeners, veterans and staff.
The healing garden is one of the sites on the 19th annual Garden Walk, hosted by the University of Illinois Extension-Vermilion County Master Gardeners. The walk will feature eight gardens from noon to 5 p.m. June 9.
Also on the walk is the VA greenhouse, built in the early 1900s, and normally closed to the public.
The healing garden, which was dedicated in November 2010, was one of the first of its kind in the United States. It’s located between the patient library (Building 125) and Patriot’s Place within the Community Living Center (Building 101). It provides access to nature in a therapeutic setting for the Patriot’s Place residents and especially those with Alzheimer disease and dementia.
Musall has noticed the effect the garden has on the veterans, saying, “They absolutely love it. It helps them heal emotionally.
“It’s so peaceful for them. If they’re having a rough day, they can walk out there. It makes a big difference.”
“This is their space,” Ruhnow added. “It’s an area to relax and decompress and it brings back memories of their farms or gardens.”
The staff benefits, as well. If someone is having a stressful day, he or she can take a break in the garden and take in a deep breath, inhaling the fragrances, Musall said.
Ruhnow said people are surprised at the size, expecting to see a 10-by-10-foot plot of land. Instead, the area is more than 50 feet at its widest spot and 250-300 feet long.
The garden is protected from storms and wildlife by buildings and fences.
The winding cement walk meanders past a gazebo, unique trees and shrubs, a picnic area, putting green, shuffleboard, basketball hoop, wooden benches, trellises, wind chimes, hummingbird feeders and garden decorations. At one point, there’s a pergola with emblems recognizing all five branches of service.
The garden features 21 pots of flowers; of those, six were planted by veterans.
Visitors also will see raised beds (at wheelchair height) with vegetables and herbs that veterans help plant, maintain and harvest. Those plants include tomatoes, strawberries, peppers, mint, sage, parsley, celery and more.
Several colorful bird houses near the entrance were made by veterans in occupational therapy.
Mirrors placed behind the arches add depth perception and give a feeling of walking through a much bigger area.
‘I LOVE THIS PLACE’
About 10 Master Gardeners maintain the garden, but Ruhnow has a special attachment, coming four times a week when possible.
“I love this place. It’s close to my heart,” said Ruhnow, who worked as a nurse for more than 25 years at the VA. She retired in 2010, when the garden opened, and became a Master Gardener the following year.
Her now-favorite spot had been overgrown with ivy, but she replaced it with plants from her yard and Master Gardener Pat Sollars’ yard.
“This is my baby right here,” she said, taking a seat in an area brightened by pink peonies and columbines. “I’m very passionate about this.”
Visitors will find a variety of plants and flowers, including almost 400 bulbs (tulips and daffodils, for example). The Japanese maple and dwarf dogwood are unusual.
Others are: Wolf’s Eye dogwood, purple smoke bush and a weeping birch; perennials like Argentinian Salvia, Jack Frost Brunera, Centaurea Mountain Bluet, and clematis provide three seasons of color. There also are irises, thornless roses, peonies, purple columbine (appropriate, as purple is the color for Alzheimer awareness), lilies, delphiniums and mums.
Some years ago the VA’s Culture Change and Veteran-Centered Care committees identified this unique opportunity for a healing garden to enhance care for veterans, and a total of $224,000 in funding was earmarked for the project.
The project was originally championed by several staff members at the VA, including then-patient advocate Jennifer Gerrib, the Veteran Centered Care Committee, Dr. Usha Paruchuri (then chief of geriatrics), and the Culture Transformation Committee. Tonya Moore-Drackley, with the engineering department, was asked to design, bid and manage the construction of an environmentally conscious garden. She continues to work at the VA as interior designer. The garden was designed with the safety and needs of veterans in mind.
The VA Greenhouse was built in the 1900s with organic horticulture practices. Master Gardeners have been active here for many years, donating and propagating most of the plants. They help maintain about 40 large containers that are overwintered in the greenhouse each year and enhance the grounds in summer.
Veterans who visit the greenhouse may choose from a variety of plants.
Visitors will be impressed by the mature banana trees in the greenhouse, along with a Bird of Paradise. They also will see the new POW garden and a special garden for pollinators near the fountain.