Harried travelers, airport-bound, may never realize they’re moments away from a peaceful refuge on Jacksonville’s Northside. There, tucked away on Duval Road, sits Celestial Farm, a therapeutic gardening and education center.
If you don’t go for a meeting of the Self-Reliance Club, a series of one-night classes in subjects such as cheese-making, essential oils and container gardening, you might go for the craft fairs, which feature local honey, farm-grown produce and wool-wrapped soaps made on site. And if craft fairs aren’t your thing, the child-care program offers parenting classes, yoga, and a sanctuary garden where a frazzled parent can sit for a moment in an otherwise hectic day.
If you don’t go for any of these reasons, go meet the billy-goat. Whose name, of course, is Gruff.
He’s huge, with lion-gold eyes and elegant horns. His raised front hoof seems like it’s poised for a graceful leap, but his knee doesn’t straighten – the product of a broken leg that never got set. Gruff’s soft ears also hang in ragged shreds, because the troubled young boy that broke the goat’s leg went after his ears too.
“It’s hard to separate the evil people can do with the good that we all want to do,” says Veronica Crider, who considers her farm a sanctuary for farm animals, many of which come to her after lifetimes of neglect and abuse. “But, we try to remember the boy was a victim too,” she says.
Veronica Crider, her husband Jeff, and their extended family have made it their mission to promote healing of body and soul through sustainable farming. In 1999, the women of the family started Celestial Therapeutic and Ornamental Gardens, making gardening accessible to seniors and less-abled people. The mother-and-four-daughter team creates bountiful greenscapes in unused spaces in nursing homes and elementary schools
“We wanted to teach people how to garden in the tiniest bit of space,” says Veronica.
Their current acreage came fortuitously, when a friend renting a barn from an elderly couple shared that the couple could no longer maintain the buildings and land. The Criders seized the opportunity. Open to the public since 2012, the farm now showcases teaching gardens, small cornucopias modeling efficient techniques such as the keyhole or the lasagna garden.
Veronica sees her skill with repurposing materials as an essential component of the farm’s educational mission. Two-liter bottles make automatic waterers, tires turn into heat-retaining container gardens sheltering tender roots, and a former tool shed becomes a solar-paneled laundry room. Recycled JEA telephone poles and concrete bricks support extra-high walled container gardens, made tall so folks with mobility issues can easily work in them.
Her awareness of the mundane challenges disabled people face comes from her own experience with Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis. “I spent most of high school on crutches,” Veronica says.
At age 8, her daughter Patricia was also diagnosed with the condition. “It was quite devastating,” Veronica says. “Her thumbs and toes are fused and she has lots of aches and pains.” Crider gestures toward the pasture, “but the horses have kept her moving.”
Jeff Crider calls Celestial Farm “a piece of heaven on earth,” but like any working farm, the projects abound. This summer, the family plans to clear out underbrush in the previously neglected blueberry field. Though the large and close-knit family forms a mighty task force, the farm also offers Volunteer Saturdays, where for a little sweat equity, a volunteer can learn new skills and be rewarded with a meal. Patricia Crider, now in culinary school, cooks up delicious dishes in the outdoor kitchen out of gratitude.
Celestial Farms offers as many ways for people and animals to grow as it does plants.
Future plans for the farm include a men’s-only fishing tournament, inspired by Jeff’s Iraq service, aimed at providing a safe space for veterans.
“I think we’re always healing,” Veronica says, “With the animals, I know they’re healed when they’re healthy and social. But for people, you’re in various stages of healing and you always need a respite.”
Personally, Veronica says: “Five minutes in the garden is good healing time for me.”