MUSC Urban Farm offers horticultural therapy, community involvement


Ten years ago, a thriving half-acre urban farm replaced a paved parking lot on Bee and President Streets. Today, the Medical University of South Carolina’s urban farm continues to thrive despite hurricanes, frequent flooding, and a recent pandemic.

Noni Langford, who has been part of the Urban Farm since its debut in 2012, was recently promoted to co-manager, working alongside Robin Smith. The two maintain the property, and Langford offers horticultural therapy, a form of therapy that engages patients in gardening and herbal pursuits. The process of harvesting and caring for various flowers, fruits, and vegetables can help patients shift their attention and give them a sense of control through repetitive motions such as digging.

The farm provides opportunities and benefits to surrounding communities and hospital patients through various workshops, volunteer work, fundraising, horticultural therapy, outreach efforts and events, Langdon said.

The garden currently grows over 65 varieties of flowers, fruits, vegetables and herbs used for food and sensory therapy. Food items such as chives, okra, mint, basil and many more are grown and harvested from the raised beds. Herbs like lavender, according to Langford, can be used for sensory therapy; it is soft to the touch and a mild stimulator for those prone to overstimulation. Although the garden specializes in plants native to the southeast like cabbage or okra, Langford said it is open to planting other non-native fruits for the inclusivity of students and volunteers. For example, a patient asked to plant bitter melon, a fruit popularly grown in Asia, as a reminder of home.

The farm’s ultimate mission is “to help people make the connection between their own health and healthy eating,” Langford said. “We’re also here to provide a place of respite for people to be outdoors and be able to connect with nature in a controlled environment.”

People can get involved in the farm by volunteering. Sessions are held at the farm every Thursday at 9 a.m., when volunteers do everything from weeding to planting and harvesting. Langdon said volunteers have first choice during a harvest. MUSC Urban Farm staff try to create zero product waste by providing food to volunteers or working with nonprofits like Slow Foods Charleston and awareness advocates like Ragina Scott-Saunders who help distribute additional products to people living in food-insecure households.

Accessibility to the garden is extremely important, Langford said. Brick walkways and patios have been added between the garden beds for easier access. “We are constantly looking for different ways to make the campus and this urban farm even more accessible than what is required by the minimum ADA requirements,” Langford said. “We want to make it really comfortable.”

People in wheelchairs usually cannot comfortably handle a raised garden bed, she added. To solve this problem, the farm team installed raised garden beds with space for people in wheelchairs to pass while tending to the garden.

Horticultural therapy, for Langford, is an important and personal mission for the patients of the hospital. “It comes down to my sons,” she said. Horticultural therapy is a growing program at MUSC and has even expanded to the rooftop garden at Shawn Jenkins Children’s Center. The interior atrium is designed like a flowing river, she says, and it’s “a real peaceful place for little kids to hang out.”

Other outreach and horticultural therapy efforts include MUSC’s STAR program at the Institute of Psychiatry to help children ages 6-17 stabilize, treat, assess, and reintegrate into society. And for those who can’t join Langford and others in the garden, Langford said she’s giving what she can to patients.

For more community involvement, the farm received funds to build what they call an urban kitchen. The kitchen is in the middle of the garden and equipped with a propane and charcoal grill, a cob oven (a sort of wood-fired pizza oven), sinks and a refrigerator. “It allowed us to bring in chefs from the hospital and do cooking demonstrations on how to make healthy snacks and pizzas,” Langford said. “It has really raised our level of lessons, and we hope to do more this coming year.”

The kitchen and garden will be used by local chefs BJ Dennis, a private chef specializing in Gullah Geechee cuisine, and Nikko Cagalanan of Filipino pop-up Mansueta during the Charleston stop of Outstanding in the Field, a traveling event that brings the culinary experience to the source of the ingredients. The event challenges chefs to use South Carolina produce to create Gullah Geechee and Filipino style meals. Other events such as dinners with local nonprofit Slow Foods Charleston, MUSC-related rallies and a campus field day, are also held at the farm, Langford said.

MUSC’s urban farm and kitchen can be rented for parties and private events. Group activities and tours can be scheduled with the staff. Activities include tasting events (like picking a piece of fresh okra from the branch and snacking on it), corporate programs, or departmental activities. The farm is available to the public to walk around and enjoy the space, but public harvesting is not permitted.

“It’s amazing how many people don’t realize we’re here, even the people who work here,” Langford said. “We really want people to know it’s available and take advantage of it.”

The MUSC Urban Farm is located at 29 Bee Street. For more information on private events, tours, activities and more contact [email protected].

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