Nature can nurture: MSU gardens help heal students


MSU 4H butterfly garden.

By Anna Lionas

Tucked away in the center of Michigan State University’s campus is the nation’s oldest university botanical garden – and a site of the emerging practice of horticulture therapy.

“We have people laying in the garden, popup Pilates classes, tours, anything you can imagine,” said Maeve Bassett, education program director at the 150-year-old Beal Botanical Garden. “In a very general sense pretty much everything we do is horticulture therapy.”

The practice engages people in gardening and plant-based activities, according to the American Horticultural Therapy Association. It is facilitated by a trained therapist with specific treatment goals.

One of the Nurture Your Roots locations in the Beal Botanical Garden and the pocket journal where visitors can write down their experiences in the garden guided by the program.

Encouraging people to use nature as a healing space is a growing discipline, Basset said.  Whether they are mathematicians, musicians or veterinarians, her specialty is to find ways to connect the Beal Botanical Garden to what people are interested in.

“The garden has always been made primarily by and for botanists,” Bassett said. “My aim is to show every single person on campus how they can engage with it and get something out of it.”

Following the Feb. 13 shooting on Michigan State’s campus, the Beal Garden team decided to launch a program already in the works called Nurture Your Roots. The idea was to provide some guidance to the grieving campus.

“It was intentionally designed to be acted out within the garden space because being outdoors and surrounded by nature is an added element of wellness.” Angelica Bajos, Beal Scholar and a garden staff member who studies the environment and sustainability.

Nurture Your Roots focuses on individuals and their wellness and mindfulness.

Locations throughout the garden have a scannable QR code provide a wellness experience unique to that site. Users are guided through practices like exercise, meditation, writing poetry and listening to music.

“We want to help people develop habits to feel better and healthier about themselves,” Bajos said.

Beal isn’t the only place on campus where students can connect with the environment.

“Nature is a great place to reconnect and separate from all the terrible things that have been happening,” said Jessica Wright, education coordinator at the university’s Michigan 4-H Children’s Garden.

Horticulture has been part of Michigan State since the university opened in 1857. The university was founded in 1855 as an agricultural school and designed to host an abundance of green space. University officials describe the campus as “a key component of a sustainable university, enhancing biodiversity and providing habitat for pollinators.”

A Nurture Your Roots location prompting visitors to tune into a song played on piano by a MSU music student.

Take a stroll south of Beal Botanical Garden and end up in the Michigan State University Horticulture Gardens.  It features 14 acres of various themed gardens that bloom all summer.

Visiting the Horticulture Gardens means stepping into a different world. A large set of greenhouses at the entrance hold plants, students studying horticulture and, in the springtime, butterflies.

School groups ranging from kindergarteners to graduate students tour them.

“The gardens are a healing and restorative space at MSU,” said Stefon Funderburke, an instructor of a university class that visits different sites around campus for their curriculum and that recently toured them. “I will definitely be coming back.”

The  wide-eyed students captured the colorful flying insects with their cell phones. One trio huddled around a butterfly laying unmoving in another student’s palm. The group listen intently as Wright from the 4H garden explained that this butterfly is at the end of its life cycle.

What users see when they scan the QR code at a Nurture your Roots location.

“Often students will tell me coming to the gardens brings them back to their childhood and reminds them of fond memories in nature,” Wright said.

The garden is a great way for students to reconnect with nature and an invaluable landscape laboratory for students in the horticulture program, she said.

It also welcomes people with a general passion for nature, Kollin Bartz, a computer science major, began working at the gardens because of his love of plants.

“I’ve always had a membership to my community garden in my hometown,” Bartz said. “I think being around plants has a positive impact on mental health.”

While a valuable resource, many students are unaware of the gardens, according to those who tend them.

This summer is a good time to get to know them as there are many programs happening at the MSU Horticulture Gardens and for the 150th anniversary of the Beal Botanical Garden.

“It’s really important that we have a lot of greenspaces on campus,” Bajos said. “Everyone is coming from different backgrounds, so you never know what people had access to or didn’t before coming to MSU.”

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