Urban ecology students at the University of Georgia had the opportunity to cultivate garden therapy this spring as part of a service-learning course. Led by doctoral student James Wood, they spent a recent Saturday morning preparing soil and installing plants in a new Bird and Pollinator Garden, located in the Healing Garden at the Loran Smith Center for Cancer Support at Athens Regional Medical Center.
Additional help came from members of the UGA Ecology Club and volunteers from the Odum School of Ecology.
The Healing Garden at the Loran Smith Center for Cancer Support at Athens Regional Medical Center was officially dedicated on May 15, 2002, to serve patients, employees and the community.
A collaborative effort from the very beginning, the garden encompasses approximately three acres of open and partly wooded space on the campus of Athens Regional Medical Center and is still growing after more than a decade in use. The latest effort to expand the Healing Garden is being led by James Wood, a doctoral student at UGA.
Wood lives near the Healing Garden, and noticed that the garden lacked native wildflowers for pollinators. He approached ARMC last fall with a proposal that he hoped would bring joy to garden users and offer a vital habitat for resident birds and monarch butterflies, which are in decline. The Bird and Pollinator Garden that he designed aims to do just that.
“The people who are often in the Healing Garden are experiencing a stressful point in their life,” Wood said. “It just seemed to fit well that we could bring together some wildlife habitat, some educational opportunities for students, and make the area a little more beautiful for those who use it.”
The expansion will introduce to the Healing Garden approximately 30 native species of flora designed to help sustain wildlife, whether they are here through the year or just passing through. At the same time, the mix of perennial plants will offer erosion control, visual softening of close-by sidewalk and bridge structures, and varied color and shape that will give balance to more manicured areas of the garden.
“The Bird and Pollinator Garden project has already engaged a group of students, and it stands to bring awareness and health benefits to countless people and wildlife in the area,” Joel Siebentritt, manager of Cancer Support Services at ARMC, said. "The bottom line is: Athens Regional’s Healing Garden doesn’t just impact our patients and their families but brings benefit to our three thousand hospital employees and the neighborhood as well."
Wood is following a long legacy of UGA students who have contributed to the Healing Garden. Students under the lead of now Professor Emeritus Marguerite Koepke, an expert in therapeutic landscapes, helped lay the groundwork for the garden; they surveyed the lot, inventoried existing vegetation and developed creative proposals to maximize the use of the space to meet its therapeutic goals.
“I think students take home a lot more when they get their fingernails dirty, when they’re holding on to plants,” Wood said. “It helps them realize they really can have an impact on the environment if they want to.”
UGA involvement has been complemented by assistance from partners within ARMC including facilities management, the Athens Regional Auxiliary and the Athens Regional Foundation. Financial support has come from UGA’s River Basin Center, UGA’s Office of STEM, Oconee River Audubon Society, The State Botanical Gardens of Georgia, Lowes and The Home Depot.
The result is tremendous activity in the garden over the past five years, all focused on accomplishing the landscape design recommendations made years ago and updated to reflect current knowledge and site conditions.
Recent improvements include the installation of the Meditation Garden, a labyrinth of paved walkways and bridges giving access to garden features and view-points; a children’s play-scape; and additional plantings to accent the various garden elements.
“It’s exciting to see the difference that these students made,” said Wood. “Where there was once bare clay and turf grass, there are now wildflowers blooming. It looks great.”