New additions to campus botanical gardens look to connect UNF students with nature

Aubrey Lowery, Multimedia Journalist

Throughout campus, after every turn, you’ll find yourself in a new environment. However, you may not know that there are 24 botanical gardens spread across campus, each capable of providing the same knowledge as a classroom.

Behind the blooms and bushes is Rhonda Gracie, University of North Florida Horticulturist, an expert in garden cultivation and management. Gracie joined UNF in 2013 and has developed an environment rooted in connectivity, sustainability and functionality.

A former architect and interior designer, Gracie has broken the fourth wall when it comes to tackling landscapes, saying “it’s not about placing all the most colorful flowers in a row, but selecting plants that can thrive together, and allow one another to reach their full potential.” 

For example, the healing garden, which has recently undergone a complete revamp, has transformed into an interactive playground for students. Every corner holds a different purpose relating to health and wellness as it is nestled in the Brooks College of Health.

The Healing Garden
The Healing Garden at UNF is located by Student Health Services. (Carter Mudgett)

Gracie described an example of how the immersion garden plays a role inside the classroom.

Recently the college had nursing students take their blood pressures in the classroom and again in the immersion garden, and there was a significant decrease in blood pressure outside,” she said. 

While the physical health correspondence is important, one should not forget about the mental health aspect of wellness. A reminder of that is the Bee Garden, which hosts a suicide prevention bench in partnership with Josh’s Benches. Coming this spring, it will be surrounded by six aluminum bee cutouts. As Gracie said, it “is a reminder of the importance of human connection.” 

A yellow bench with suicide prevention information
One of Josh’s Benches in the Healing Garden at UNF. (Carter Mudgett)

One of those connections can be as simple as asking for help after getting stuck in one of the new hammocks, which from personal experience, allows one to share a laugh with a stranger. 

It is increasingly hard for our generation to take a step back from technology and into the heliographic days when cavemen used to scribe the importance of being out in nature. And while the generational divide between students and the older generations is not prehistoric, it is important to include them in the present times. 

Perhaps the garden that best tributes to the past is the Peace Plaza Garden which houses statues of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. as a symbol of the progress that time makes. 

However, one detail that people may not bat an eye to is Gracie’s plant choices.

“The purple and white flowers were chosen because they are the colors of the Women’s Rights movement,” Gracie said. 

Small purple flowers at the base of the statue
Small purple flowers surround the Martin Luther King Jr. statue in Peace Plaza Garden. (Carter Mudgett)

Next is the Climate Change garden placed by the biology building which is a nod to the importance of taking care of the environment by taking action now to ensure there is a later. 

This is why UNF is striving to become a Florida Friendly Landscaping environment, guaranteeing the products used to preserve the gardens are the most sustainable as can be. Being sustainable means no longer picking up every stray leaf but allowing the leaf to help compost the soil. 

However, finding the “leaves” to maintain the gardens has become a challenge in the past few years. Gracie explained the amount of hired maintenance men has dropped from 35 to 20, meaning the department has become more reliant on volunteers. 

So far many have answered the call following a tabling event in 2020 where dozens of volunteers offered to help. Now every Saturday people can volunteer with Gracie as a way to help the worker shortage.

UNF is a learning environment, meaning that there are plenty of opportunities to get involved, including internships and grants from the Institute of Environmental Research and Education (IERE).  If interested in volunteering, participating in either a hands-on or hands-off work-study program, or even just attending a walking tour, head to the garden’s website.

In Gracie’s words, “UNF is special because it is hidden amongst the forest.” 

It is important to make sure that creating a successful learning environment starts from the ground up, so nurture every seed. 


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