In 1987, Ruth Phillips, an occupational therapist at Sepulveda VA Medical Center in North Hills, came up with the idea of using gardening as a means of therapy and self-improvement for retired and disabled veterans.
Eleven years later, her vision has transformed the backyard of Building 4 at the center into an organic garden paradise.
Plump potatoes, leafy lettuce and ripe red tomatoes sprout out of the soil in the 2,000-square-foot garden. Corn stalks rise 7 feet above the ground. And marigolds, carnations and petunias co-exist with the vegetables.
On Wednesday, sugar cane became the latest addition.
"We're planting them in honor of President Clinton's trip to China. That's where sugar cane originated," said Phillips, who serves as coordinator for what has become the center's horticulture program. "Also, right now is a good time to plant sugar canes because they get damaged during the cold season."
Under Phillips' direction, retired veterans Howard Levine, Karl Seddig and John Briley planted five sugar cane sections near an 8-foot brick wall along the north end of the backyard Wednesday.
"In less than a year, they should become taller than the wall," said Phillips, who studied horticulture at UCLA through a three-year extension program.
Since its inception, the program has attracted more than 100 retired and disabled veterans, who, as Phillips envisioned, found gardening to be therapeutic.
One example is Charlie "Mad Dog" Self, 78. Despite being confined to a wheelchair, Self drives himself to the center every day from his home in Van Nuys to weed and water the garden.
"You wouldn't believe how fast they grow," said Self, who pointed to a patch of green squash he planted two months ago.
For Panorama City resident Rusty Martin, 65, who suffered a stroke in 1994 that left him without the use of his left arm, gardening has also proven to be an effective form of exercise.
"I lost 25 pounds during the past 2 1/2 years," Martin said as he watered the flower beds. "It's better than just sitting around all day."