Ten years ago, a thriving, half-acre urban farm replaced an asphalt parking lot at Bee and President streets. Now, the Medical University of South Carolina Urban Farm continues to thrive despite living through hurricanes, frequent flooding and a recent pandemic.
Noni Langford, who’s been with the urban farm on and off since its 2012 debut, was recently promoted to co-manager, working alongside Robin Smith. The two maintain the property, and Langford provides horticultural therapy, a form of therapy that engages patients in gardening and plant-based activities. The process of harvesting and maintaining various flowers, fruits and vegetables can help patients turn their attention to something else and provide a sense of control through repetitive movements such as digging.
The farm provides opportunities and benefits to the surrounding communities and the hospital’s patients through various workshops, volunteer work, funding, horticultural therapy, outreach efforts and events, said Langdon.
The garden currently grows more than 65 varieties of flowers, fruits, vegetables and herbs used for food and sensory therapy. Food products such as chives, okra, mint, basil and more are grown and harvested in the raised beds. Herbs like lavender, according to Langford, can be used for sensory therapy; it’s soft to the touch and a gentle stimulator for those who are prone to overstimulation. Though the garden specializes in plants native to the Southeast like cabbage or okra, Langford said they’re open to planting other non-native fruits for the inclusivity of students and volunteers. For example, one patient requested to plant bittermelon, a fruit popularly grown in Asia, as a reminder of home.
The ultimate mission of the farm is “to help people make that connection between their own health and eating healthy,” Langford said. “We are also here to provide a place of respite for people to be outside and to be able to connect with nature in a controlled environment.”
People can get involved with the farm by volunteering. Sessions are held at the farm every Thursday at 9 a.m., when volunteers do everything from planting to weeding and harvesting. Langdon said volunteers are given first choice in a harvest. The MUSC Urban Farm staff tries to create zero waste on produce by providing food to volunteers or working with nonprofits like Slow Foods Charleston and outreach advocates like Ragina Scott-Saunders who help distribute extra produce to people living in food-insecure households.
Accessibility to the garden is extremely important, Langford said. Brick pathways and patios have been added between garden beds for easier access. “We’re constantly looking for different ways to make the campus and this urban farm even more accessible than whatever’s required by the minimum ADA requirements,” Langford said. “We want to make it really comfortable.”
Individuals in wheelchairs usually can’t comfortably tend a raised garden bed, she added. To solve this issue, the team at the farm installed raised garden beds with space for those in wheelchairs to pass through while tending the garden.
Horticultural therapy, for Langford, is an important and personal mission of hers for patients at the hospital. “It relates back to my sons,” she said. Horticultural therapy is a growing program at MUSC and has even expanded to the rooftop garden at the Shawn Jenkins Children’s Center. The interior atrium is designed like a flowing river, she said, and it’s “a real peaceful place for the little kids to be able to go outside.”
Other outreach efforts and horticultural therapy include MUSC’s STAR Program at the Institute of Psychiatry to help children ages 6 to 17 years old stabilize, treat, assess and reintegrate into society. And for those who aren’t able to join Langford and others in the garden, Langford said she brings what she can to the patients.
For more community engagement, the farm received funding to build, what they call, an urban kitchen. The kitchen is in the middle of the garden and dressed with a propane and charcoal grill, a cob oven (a type of wood-fire pizza oven), sinks and a refrigerator. “That allowed us to have chefs from the hospital come over and do cooking demonstrations on how to make healthy snacks and pizzas and things,” Langford said. “That really extended our level of classes, and we hope to do more of that this coming year.”
The kitchen and garden will be used by local chefs BJ Dennis, a private chef who specializes in Gullah Geechee cuisine, and Nikko Cagalanan of Filipino pop-up Mansueta’s during the Charleston stop of Outstanding in the Field, a touring event that brings the dining 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 like dinners with local nonprofit Slow Foods Charleston, MUSC-related gatherings and a campus field day, are also hosted at the farm, Langford said.
The MUSC’s urban farm and kitchen can be rented for private parties and events. Group activities and tours can be scheduled with the staff. Activities include tasting events (like picking a fresh piece of okra off the branch and snacking on it), corporate programs or departmental activities. The farm is available for public use to walk through and enjoy the space, but public harvesting is not permitted.
“It’s amazing how many people don’t realize we’re here, even people who work here,” Langford said. “We really want people to know that it’s available and to enjoy it.”
The MUSC Urban Farm is located at 29 Bee St. For more information on private events, tour, activities and more, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
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