The decades may have helped the wound to close over, but you can still feel the hurt under his words.

Gardener and social worker Kenny Turck was in grade school when his big sister committed suicide at 21. An outspoken daughter of Litchfield, Minn., the Crow River community that her family had called home since 1875, Kathy Turck was gay and the victim of a horrific assault.

"She was raped by four men, and the judge blamed the assaults on her lifestyle," Turck said, his eyes falling away.

That compound tragedy devastated his family and set him on a course to find and provide healing, Turck, 54, said while standing in his vegetable garden as his boisterous pooch, Woke, bounded around.

He had a twin brother who struggled to deal with the emotional trauma. "He was plagued with recurring dreams and thoughts and later on went on to use chemicals to self-medicate. I worked to help people belong."

Turck's garden outside his Litchfield home was selected by a panel of judges as one of six winners in the Star Tribune's annual Beautiful Gardens contest, chosen from more than 380 nominations from readers.

In this unusual year, the contest was changed a bit. We invited readers to nominate gardens that are beautiful in spirit and contribute to the greater good.

Digging in dirt

Most people look at a row of cabbage or carrots and think of savory things that they can make. Turck looks at crops and thinks of therapy. They are a gateway into mind and heart and soul.

In 2010, he founded Dirt Group, a hands-on social skills group that combines farming with therapy. His clients come from many backgrounds and represent many ages, but he has a special fondness for young people, especially those at-risk youngsters suffering from trauma or feeling displaced. The work they do with Turck includes group sessions and gardening. They plant heirloom tomatoes, as well as an assortment of basil, corn and squash.

"As a kid growing up, I loved harvest season, especially digging carrots or unhusking the decorative corn," Turck said. "I didn't realize at the time that nature is full of fractals, and those repeating patterns cause our nervous system to be soothing and calm. The Japanese refer to it as forest bathing. It's ecotherapy, getting us back into balance."

Each youngster has a treatment plan that has identified a medical reason for them to be in the group, which, before the pandemic, met twice a week for two hours each time. They would start out with a talking circle before going into experiential activities. They would cook together and eat together. The treatment can last anywhere from three months to a year.

"Most of the kids have complex trauma histories," Turck said. "Everybody thaws out differently from their trauma."

Beyond healing

But digging in the dirt is not just for therapy. The gardening that the young people do also is practical. The clients harvest and keep the food that they plant for their tables.

"Our food system is based in capitalism, but food to me seems to be the most basic human right," Turck said. "We have enough knowledge that nobody should ever go hungry — hunger is unconscionable."

His clients, ages 4 to 12, come from across the nation. He describes Dirt Group as "a resiliency and trauma-informed mental health application." Gardening and farming are joined with creative arts projects.

"We grow food with kids with mental health issues," Turck said. "We help them develop social competency. We help them heal."

Passionate about his work, Turck, who is working on a doctorate, easily goes deep into his discipline, discoursing on polyvagal theory (about how human emotions are expressed in facial cues) and the autonomic nervous system that regulates bodily functions.

All those things come into play as he leads groups populated with youngsters with autism.

"The exercise that happens when we look at each other's faces, what I refer to as cranial nerve interaction — the intensity, volume, cadence of our voices, this is where we learn empathy and learn social and emotional intelligence," Turck said.

Peggy Robbins, a foster mother who lives 10 minutes away from Turck in Kingston, oohed over the cabbage, zucchini and cinnamon basil in the garden on a recent visit.

Over the years, Turck has worked with many of the young people she fosters.

"Kenny is really good with the kids," Robbins said. "He gets them digging in the dirt and opening up into a good place."

Ready to roll

Intense and focused, Turck sports a buzz cut that suggests a Marine's discipline. But his aura is more rock 'n' roll. That's appropriate, given he once made a go of a musician's life.

A vocal performance major at the College of St. John's, Turck initially thought the way to help people find their place in the world was to give them music. He became a singer-songwriter, spending 2 ½ years on the road as the lead singer of a band that kept changing its name. It started out as Toy Menagerie but later became Boo Radley (after a character in "To Kill a Mockingbird") and, later, Strickland, after a band member's New Jersey home.

"We played with Kansas and REO Speedwagon," Turck said. "Everybody I met on the road was seeking the same thing, which was to belong."

Even before college, he was giving presentations on suicide awareness and prevention. But being in the music world helped crystallize his calling.

"I bopped around with a guitar and would sing with my eyes closed," conjuring visions, Turck recalled. "That's when I would see my twin brother, and my cousin and my sister underneath the couch. There's something powerful about music that was helping me to heal."

After college, he worked in a residential treatment center. Even as he enjoyed the rush he got from performing in front of thousands of people, he longed to do work that was less noisy, more sensitive and a lot more focused. That meant going to graduate school to try to work out the ghosts of his own past and to help young people find their place in the world.

"When the kids come here, they have new experiences to help them in ways that even I sometimes don't know," Turck said, smiling. "Some kids really get into our blue and purple potatoes. Some go nuts making cinnamon basil cookies. We grow all of that right here, by their hands."

Hands that farm sweet helpings of organic produce, with big sides of healing.

@rohanpreston