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Plymouth Vietnam veteran finds healing in harvesting

Phillip Bock
USA TODAY NETWORK - Wisconsin

PLYMOUTH - Sitting among the fragrant flowers and fluttering monarchs, Don Guzman finds a calm relaxation in his garden that quiets the anxieties of his mind.

The Vietnam veteran, diagnosed with PTSD and a bipolar disorder, has found a kind of therapy in gardening where other avenues of treatment have failed him.

In his second year of gardening, Guzan's rural Plymouth plot is a cornucopia of vibrant life — but the crops are more than what they appear.

Don Guzan's checks on crops in his heirloom garden in rural Plymouth. The Vietnam veteran plants unique crops and researches companion gardening.

Not satisfied with generic varieties, Guzan plants rare heirloom crops from around the world. He raises the plants--heritage varieties not traditionally grown commercially--from seed organically without pesticides or chemicals.

“You are looking at flavor,” he said of growing heirloom crops. “They have much better taste. Eventually (farmers) started growing things for shelvability and to last longer, but you started to lose the taste.”

More than 150 different species are growing in the garden, from Connecticut field squash and Japanese popcorn, to Oxheart carrots and almost a dozen varieties of tomatoes.

“All of my tomatoes this year had a catastrophic failure," Guzan said. "I usually start them early. Everything went in the ground as seeds, but I had to treat them better this year.”

Every crop is a unique project for Guzan, which is key to the therapy it provides. Diagnosed bipolar, Guzan's spectrum disorder manifests in a need to constantly be involved in projects.

Guzan can list 92 major projects he started since returning from the war in 1973, which included starting — but not finishing — five books, and jumping into a new business venture without the funding or planning needed to succeed. The majority of projects would either fail or be left unfinished.

Don Guzan donates about 90 percent of his crops, but also operates a stand to sell produce on the corner of Country Road M and County Road C in rural Plymouth.

“What happens is, I do the project for the sake of the project. I’ll throw money at it, I’ll do research, I’ll be passionate about it, I’ll lose sleep over it – the whole thing – but 9 out of 10 times I’d just abandon it before it’s done and move onto the next one,” Guzan said.

Without projects, the PTSD and depression can take over.

Gardening, he said, is the perfect project — actually multiple projects. Guzan keeps meticulous notes on what he has planted, when he planted each crop and the yield of each plant.

“You could see there is all kinds of projects involved in here, which, whether I finish them or not, the winter finishes them for me – so it’s a reset,” he said.

Dubbed the Ernie Dippner Memorial Garden — named after an old friend — Guzan's garden is meticulously planned and weeded. With crops already bursting to capacity, Guzan is already eyeing a second plot to start a second garden.

“I refer to it as controlled chaos, and that’s what it is,” he said. “Everything is timing with plants.”

He is also working on his own comprehensive companion gardening guide. Not satisfied with the existing research on the topic, Guzan is doing his own experiments to determine what plants work well together — and which don't.