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Healing Garden provides refuge, helps students grow

A bee works in the Healing Garden at Hilltop Gardens. Photo by James Brosher, Indiana University A bee works in the Healing Garden at Hilltop Gardens. Photo by James Brosher, Indiana University

One year into the COVID-19 pandemic, Suyash Kumar Neupane was thousands of miles away from his family back in Nepal, feeling lonely and homesick.

Neupane, an international graduate student at IU Bloomington, found refuge in a small, triangular patch of land toward the back of Hilltop Garden called the Healing Garden. He visited for the first time in March 2021.

“The Healing Garden provided me with almost everything to help me stay connected to nature, as well as stay grounded in these tough times,” he said. “I also got to meet and build friendship with fellow international students in similar predicaments as me.”

Neupane spent his early days in the garden volunteering and helping clean up and till the land to prepare it for planting. He was constantly learning — how to remove grass so it doesn’t grow back, how to use different gardening tools and more. Those daily lessons and conversations with other students and volunteers helped Neupane better understand food systems and how people are connected to the land. They also taught him something about himself.

“I learned that it is important to pause, stop and reset once in a while,” Neupane said.

Indiana University Assistant Professor Keitlyn Alcantara works in the Healing Garden. (Photo by J... That’s one of the goals Keitlyn Alcantara  had in mind when she started the garden in March 2021.

“University systems have a really high speed of life and are places where perfectionism can make you think you’re not doing enough, you don’t know enough because you’re trying to reach this kind of ever-changing pinnacle,” said Alcantara, an assistant professor of anthropology in the College of Arts and Sciences. “What I hope is that when people come here, they have a space to change that rhythm just a little bit. Just breathe into themselves, get excited about things again and also find other ways to reregulate.”

That mindset is also evident in Alcantara’s approach to the garden, in both what is grown and how. Each season you’ll find some plants that are familiar and some that are new. Over the summer, Alcantara and students planted sesame for the first time, as well as chia. There’s no pressure for these experiments to be prolific.

“A lot of what I’ve learned from the people who taught me about plants is that you’re building a community with the plants themselves,” she said. “They’re going to do what they’re going to do and you kind of just watch and adapt.”

Alex McGrath, Healing Garden manager and IU graduate, said she found that philosophy refreshing. While she had some experience with gardening before getting involved, she said she appreciates how the Healing Garden challenged her preconceived notions about ecology, plants and agriculture.

“I really appreciate that willingness to take a step back and the absence of judgment about what’s happening with the plants,” she said.

Keitlyn Alcantara fills a bag with produce from the Healing Garden. (Photo by James Brosher/India... Keitlyn Alcantara fills a bag with produce from the Healing Garden. (Photo by James Brosher/Indiana University)Rather than focusing just on how much the garden yields, students and volunteers talk about how things grow, what smells and tastes are familiar to them, and what memories are tied to food. It gives them a better understanding of nature, and each other.

“A lot of the storytelling we do here is trying to find the commonalities to understand each other as complex, interesting people who all have something we can learn from,” Alcantara said.

Several different classes have visited the garden 

Anyone can visit the Healing Garden Monday-Friday between 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. There are also volunteer opportunities, and the space hosts Embodied Learning Workshops centered on the experiences of multicultural, immigrant and diasporic being.