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  • Collegian staff

Salem's community gardens: Spots for study breaks, outdoor enjoyment

Updated: Oct 22, 2021

Sanja Zelen

Staff writer

Salem is teeming with urban green spaces, from community gardens to parks, which provide opportunities for students to take a study break and enjoy the outdoors. Urban green spaces have been proven to positively impact one’s health. Just being present in a green space can reduce stress, provide an escape from noise in the city and increase “everyday enjoyment, work productivity and general mental health.”

Another bonus of Salem’s green spaces is the abundance of animals that can be seen. Being around animals positively affects health, as exposure to animals can improve stress levels and decrease blood pressure. When walking around campus and the general Salem area, it is easy to see ducks swimming up and down the Mill Stream and squirrels in trees.

There are many community gardens and animals in Salem for students to visit. Whether you’re on or off campus, looking for a park or quiet garden to sit in or a squirrel or duck to watch, there are tranquil spots accessible for anyone to enjoy.

1. Martha Springer Botanical Garden

Location: Behind Sparks

pathway in a botanical garden
Inside the Botanical Garden. Photo by Grace Shiffrin.

The Martha Springer Botanical Garden features native plants, garden beds, lawns and a clear view of the Mill Stream. According to a report by the WU Grounds Department, trees such as Red Alder, Willow, Vine Maple, Douglas Spirea and Ninebark can be seen along its edge. In the fall, common flowers found in the Martha Springer Botanical Garden include the yellow and white flower Meadowfoam and the pink flower Lewisia. The Meadowfoam attracts bees, and ducks can be seen in the Mill Stream nearby. The garden can be enjoyed in any season, despite the changing flowers and plants throughout autumn, due to the green lawns and stone benches that students can sit and relax on.

2. Japanese Zen Garden

Location: Behind the Art Building

Japanese zen garden next to willamettes art building
Inside the Japanese Zen Garden. Photo by Grace Shiffrin.

The Japanese Zen Garden was designed and completed in 1991 by a Willamette Professor named Germaine Fuller and her students as a project to beautify the area behind the Art Building. It features a path, stepping stones, and a gravel representation of water. Tucked away from Willamette’s main sidewalks and lawns, it provides solace from studying and classes, as it is secluded and not populated. The garden also has native Japanese plants, such as Japanese Elm, and a bamboo fence. A covered bench in the corner of the garden makes the area ideal for a rainy Oregon day.

3. Belknap & Matthews Student Garden

Location: Next to the walkway between Matthews and Belknap

The Belknap & Matthews Student Garden is a small on-campus community garden with produce available to Willamette students. One of the leaders of Zena Farm Club, Hope Heideman, explained the garden’s purpose and policy: “We pretty much have a take-what-you-want kind of policy and just ask that people don't take what they won’t use and leave some for others if they can. Then we also harvest regularly and distribute using our Instagram and we've been doing all pay-what-you-can-produce, which is a new model because our farm stands haven’t really been allowed because of Covid.” Zena Farm Club can be found on Instagram at @wu_zenafarmclub.

4. Bush Park

Location: Mission Street

Bush Park, less than 20 minutes away by foot and three minutes by car from Willamette, provides multiple dirt and paved trails for students to walk and run on. One trail passes, and at one point crosses, Mill Race. The longest trail is around 1.5 miles in length. A quarter of a mile from the parking lot on Mission Street, a large field can be enjoyed by sports teams and pedestrians alike. Oregon White Oak trees dominate Bush Park). The park has several gardens, including the Bush House Conservatory (a greenhouse) and the rose garden, which sits next to a white gazebo providing shelter.

5. Zena

Location: 5560 Zena Rd NW

Zena Forest provides research and visitation opportunities exclusively for Willamette students and faculty who file a request form to conduct field-based research. Located 23 minutes away by car, Zena is home to a wide variety of tree species, including apple trees, Douglas Fir, Ponderosa Pine and Western Red Cedar.

Zena Farm Club has also gone out to Zena in past semesters to harvest fruit and vegetables. Heideman spoke about why gardening is beneficial: “I think part of it’s just connecting to soil and plants and other life forms. Then also the community aspect when you're doing these kinds of repetitive tasks, [and] feeling connected to the earth. I think there's a lot more room for really interesting connections with people and conversations. Also just having a very transparent food pathway, I think, has a lot of benefits.”

Access to Zena Forest is currently limited to educational purposes due to COVID-19. Its opening status can be found on WU’s Zena Policies page.

Environmental Science Majors at Willamette offer another perspective on the benefits of green spaces. Senior Grace DeLee reflected on what urban green spaces mean to her as a science major: “[A] green space is a space around a city, like a park, that has accessible nature to everyone, and normally the benefits are better mental health because people are able to walk around these areas. The air is cleaner, because we have access to more trees. Overall, I think [one’s] mental health benefits because forestry has a calming effect on people.”

DeLee shared her favorite green spaces on campus: “I like the Japanese gardens, the Botanical Gardens once in a while. I think those are really nice green spaces. Sometimes the star trees can be nice too.”

Many of these green spaces are often inhabited by animals. An Instagram page, @willametteduckwatch, was recently created for the sole purpose of capturing photos and videos of ducks swimming in the Mill Stream. Birds such as Blue Jays and squirrels feed on seeds that are scattered close to Goudy and Hatfield library as well. In downtown Salem, nutria can occasionally be spotted swimming in the waterways, although their presence on campus vanished for the most part in the late spring to summer of 2019. Dogs also have a large presence at Riverfront and adjoining Minto-Brown Island Park, which features a dog park less than a mile off the pedestrian bridge.

Regardless of the season, a student’s mode of transportation or whether a student wishes to see flowers or birds, Salem is full of urban green spaces that provide countless physical and mental health benefits, that can be an escape from ongoing COVID-related stress and a breath of fresh air, especially as finals approach.

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