For those curious if The Garden is a cult, you'd be hard-pressed to find a better resource than Tyler Milligan. A doomsday prepper from Colorado, Tyler is the first prospective member introduced in Discovery Channel's The Garden: Commune or Cult, a six-episode limited series exploring the off-grid community. In 2021, The Garden became embroiled in controversy when a member named Tree began posting TikTok videos from the group's 22-acre plot in Tennessee; in one video, Tree recalled members killing and eating a feral cat, prompting many social media users to brand the group a cult. The outrage led The Garden to close ranks, but now, with founder Patrick Martion initiating a new community land project in La Plata, Missouri, it has once again opened its doors to the public in hopes of recruiting new members.
Discovery's docuseries boasts unprecedented access to the Missouri project and the arrival of prospective members, who must undergo a 10-day initiation period before they are welcomed into the group. In a way, these newcomers become stand-ins for the audience: Like viewers, they travel to Missouri with questions about The Garden's commitment to intentional living and the allegations that emerged online. While some wait for the truth to emerge, Tyler leaps into action, asking members directly about the cat-eating controversy, The Garden's conflict-resolution process, and Patrick's connection to the Rainbow Family of Living Light, a counterculture movement that's been known to clash with law enforcement. "If I want to be part of this community," Tyler tells Primetimer, "I need to know the truth. Like, is this actually safe? Am I going to have to drink Kool-Aid?"
Tyler wants to believe that The Garden is just a collection of "weird but harmless" people, but what he experiences doesn't always support that idea. He's particularly concerned by the group's treatment of Narayah, a recently admitted member who clashes with Tree and his partner Julia. After a few days of exchanging words, Tree calls a council meeting, and during a tense back-and-forth that Tyler reveals lasted four or five hours, the members reach a consensus to kick out Narayah.
In an interview, Tyler explains why he's so bothered by Narayah's expulsion (and the aftermath), defends his "straightforward" approach to uncovering the truth, and, of course, teases where he ultimately comes down on the question of whether The Garden is a dangerous cult or an unconventional, but innocuous, community.
What drew you to The Garden? As a self-described "prepper" with a military background, you seem a bit different than many of the group's current members.
Oh, that's an understatement [laughs]. So, I already knew Tree from social media, on TikTok. I was there when all of that — the violent moments with the cult stuff — unfolded. And then they closed their doors, and when they reopened them, I was like, "Sign me up." I'm all about weird and new experiences, especially when it comes to off-grid living. As a prepper, survivalist, bushcrafter, I'm all about what skills I can gain from going off the grid.
Plus, I'm a story collector. There's no way I can go to a place like that, being someone like me, and not come back with stories.
In the premiere, you admit you "have a problem with anger" and "have no problem killing someone." Were you concerned that your "kill or be killed" mentality, as you describe it, would put you at odds with the pacifist ideals of The Garden and its members?
That's something that I've always worked on. Because I have PTSD from the Army, and over the past 15 years, I have been working really hard on not being emotionally reactive. I know for a fact that I have that capability to physically harm someone, and I used to have anger that just kind of overtook me, like the Hulk. And I'm not saying that to be this macho guy — I'm embarrassed about that. I'm kind of ashamed of it. But over the years I've worked through that.
It does make me nervous, because I know when I have a certain way of doing things and someone says the opposite or makes me try to do something or says I can't do something, I might have a bad reaction. But I did pretty good there. But yes, that was a concern.
You took more of an investigative approach to your time on the commune, asking members point-blank about the group's connection to the Rainbow Collective and the cat-eating allegations. Why did you feel it was important to go to Patrick and other members directly with these questions?
Because I'm a straightforward guy. If I want to know something, I'm not going to sugarcoat it. I'm going to try to be tactful, but I want to know: What do you truly think? What happens [here]? And the only way to do that is to be direct. I don't mind confrontation — some people got mad at some of the questions I was asking. I don't necessarily care. I feel pretty confident with myself, with the questions that I was asking; it wasn't like stepping overboard. I was really wanting to know because if I want to be part of this community at a later time, and I want to bring my wife to something like that, I need to know the truth. Like, is this actually safe? Am I going to have to drink Kool-Aid or something along those lines?
It was refreshing to see you just go right in there and say, "I'm going to ask these questions. This is the information I feel that, as a potential new member, I'm entitled to have."
Exactly. And I don't like using the word "entitled," but I felt entitled to know the truth, especially coming from someone like Patrick. [He] was basically the creator of all this. He's the actual owner of the Tennessee property, the actual Garden, and I wanted to know from the horse's mouth, what's the deal with all this? Not just articles online and speculation.
When you asked Julie about the cat allegation, she sidestepped the question and insisted the group wants to "tell a new story," which is a big reason why they've invited cameras onto the commune in the first place. What were your impressions of Julie and Tree, who seem to have taken on unofficial leadership roles in the group?
Absolutely, I can see where people see that. They become the face– not necessarily the leader, but they're the face of a leaderless group, so people can misconstrue that [as], "Oh, they're actually the ones in charge."
But as people, they are such beautiful personalities, so unique, so eccentric. I'd describe Tree as a mythical creature that has his own set of lore; that's the best way I can describe him. And Julia is the biggest sweetheart I have ever met. Always has a smile on her face that's contagious. She's the type of person that you want to be around because she gives you energy versus taking it away, like an energy vampire, like some of the people that are in that group.
Did you feel that their interest in bringing the cameras in was genuine, or that it was an attempt to rewrite the narrative, so to speak, about the group?
That is a really good question. I can't speak on their behalf about what their actual intentions were, but from what I gathered, it was an opportunity– another chance to say, "Hey, we're not a cult. Watch these new people and what happens. We're not a cult."
But sometimes when you try too hard, it may have the opposite effect.
As you alluded to, by the end of the first episode, your investigation tactics have fostered some distrust among the members. Do you regret coming in so strongly with these kinds of questions?
If I did nothing wrong, in my head, I don't have regrets because there's no point in regretting something that you can't change. So, it is what it is. Sure, there's stuff I've done in my life that I wish I could walk back, but I can't. Two things that I know for a fact in life that you can't take back are words and bullets. So it's about carefully choosing how you approach things. And I think if I had a chance to do it all again, I would do it exactly the way I did it.
During your first few days, Tree's conflict with Narayah escalates to the point that she's voted out during a contentious council meeting. You're clear that you don't agree with how that situation was handled, but what did you find most concerning about Narayah's forced exit?
I'm an empath, so I constantly put myself in other people's shoes. And if I was in Narayah's shoes, I would be fighting people. You touch my sh*t, and you literally throw it into my truck because you think it's time for me to go? I get the reasoning behind the way they did that because she was taking her sweet time [to pack up] and all that stuff, but you don't treat someone less-than. They felt like they had the right to touch her stuff, to rip her tent apart, and then shove it into the back of her truck. That was not okay with me.
It took me a second to figure out the reasoning behind [the vote]. Because when you have a consensus — [when] that's the process of how you make your decisions — all it takes is one person to say "no." It becomes almost like a reverse dictatorship. All it takes is one person to be like, "Nah." And it sounds like that's what she was doing. They had a lot of different ideas that they tried to consense on, and she was like, "Nah, I don't want that."
I think it might have been a little premature for some of those people's arguments. Some people just like to– like Vibe, it doesn't matter who was talking, what drama it was, what the discussion was, Vibe was in there just because it was drama.
It seemed like people were flip-flopping onto whatever side was convenient at any given moment.
I know it doesn't show– actually I don't know. I haven't seen any of it. But that lasted four, five hours, that council meeting. So it's like you're beating a dead horse at this point, and Narayah just kept repeating herself over and over again. And then everybody just kept doing the exact same thing, over and over again. It was insane — like literally, the definition of insanity. And eventually, that's why Vibe and Shine felt the need to take it upon themselves to start breaking down her stuff and start throwing it in the back of her truck.
What was the most surprising thing you witnessed or experienced at The Garden?
I'm going to give myself away a little bit: I stereotyped people quite a bit. When I think of the word "hippie," I think of nature lovers that are very passive and lazy. I will never look at the word "hippie" again quite the same. At least this particular group — Tree, Julia, Pat — such hardworking people. That surprised me a lot because of the stereotype that I had in my head. That was really refreshing. I thought I was going to have to go in there and have to be the d*ckhead and be like, "Get off your lazy ass, we have work to do," and that was not the case. They were on top of it. I loved it. It was great.
Can you reveal where you ultimately came down on the matter of whether The Garden is a cult? Is there anything you can tease about what you sussed out during your time there?
I won't answer that fully — I do give my perspective at the end, but I'll let that play out as you see it. But I will say, I can understand why people still think it's a cult. Because sometimes the more you deny something, the worse it looks. That's why it's better to just be upfront and say, "This is the reason why that lady did that to that cat." And "This is the reason why we do the things that we do." And "This is why we're so secretive and safeguard this." It's just better to be out in the open.
But it's just a unique set of people, that's all I've got to say. And even after the season's done, everybody is going to have their own opinion from their own perspective. Because "reality" is whatever your perspective is.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
The Garden: Commune or Cult airs Sundays at 10:00 PM ET on Discovery Channel.
Claire Spellberg Lustig is the Senior Editor at Primetimer and a scholar of The View. Follow her on Twitter at @c_spellberg.