Healing the community

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 was officially dedicated in May 2002 to serve the hospitals’ patients, employees and the community. A collaborative effort from the 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. 

Wood lives near the Healing Garden and noticed that it 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 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 introduces approximately 30 native species of flora designed to help sustain wildlife to the Healing Garden. At the same time, the mix of perennial plants offers 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,” said Joel Siebentritt, manager of Cancer Support Services at ARMC. “The bottom line is Athens Regional’s Healing Garden doesn’t just impact our patients and their families. (It) brings benefit to our 3,000 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 onto plants,” Wood said. “It helps them realize they really can have an impact on the environment if they want to.”

Read more about UGA’s sustainability initiative at Discover UGA.


UGA involvement has been complemented by assistance from partners within ARMC including facilities management, Athens Regional Auxiliary and Athens Regional Foundation. Financial support has come from UGA’s River Basin Center, UGA’s Office of STEM Education, Oconee River Audubon Society, State Botanical Garden of Georgia, Lowes and 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 viewpoints; 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,” Wood said. “Where there was once bare clay and turf grass, there are now wildflowers blooming. It looks great.”