Jessica, Cindy, Karen and Marissa with helpers, Fitz and Ju-Ju.

The University of Minnesota Landscape Arboretum started collaborating with Living Well in the spring of 1993 when one of our founders, Karen Pate, and the Institute for Community Integration, reached out looking for ways to bring nature to our homes. This means that for 30 years, the people we support, as well as our staff, have had access to gardens, education about nature, and the opportunity to include the outdoors in their life at home and at work.

Karen was a big part of the plan to beautify the homes with flowers and plants with the introduction of garden beds to the houses. Jean Larson, with the University of Minnesota, Landscape Arboretum and Earl E. Bakken Center for Spirituality & Healing has been involved since the beginning, and says, “Karen was a pivotal part of the partnership and understood the importance of incorporating flowers into the homes.” Jean says Karen inherently knew that the people we serve would benefit immensely from adding nature into the homes and their lives. Together they believe the people we support, and all people with disabilities, deserve to have the same access to beauty and nature as everybody.

In the early days it was an educational experience, raising awareness as an activity to do with the people in their homes, but it planted a bigger seed and grew into the wellness program we have today. The first garden at Marie Avenue was a place to educate all of us and raise awareness of how to actually garden. It also made gardening easily accessible as it was right outside the door—inviting staff and families to participate in the type of engagement you can easily have with the people who live there. It also showed people that it doesn’t have to be complicated. The gardens worked to beautify the landscapes as well as help the houses integrate more seamlessly into community. Living Well has always chosen amazing neighborhoods, and it was important to be a part of community with a beautiful home and wonderful people.

Since that first raised garden bed was planted, each year just before Mother’s Day flowers and now herbs are delivered to Living Well and distributed to all of our homes. Why Mother’s Day? Jean says, “When I first started bringing the flowers it was requested so families could participate together planting in the gardens for Mother’s Day. The idea being to have something to do together when visiting people at the group home.” Since then, it has been a lovely tradition, and a beautiful way to welcome spring.

The gardens help to nourish bellies and highlight the importance of healthy food, and how growing your own food can become an activity that brings joy to eating and trying new foods. When you garden you use your whole body and bring purpose to an activity. When they added vegetables and herbs to help with meal planning and ease with food prep and nutritious enhancement, it was a direct invitation to try new foods at home. Participation with your meal and being aware of the food chain felt important. It is easy to put herbs in lemonade, or mix with cream cheese for a spread, or put dill on salmon—it doesn’t have to be complicated. Before farm to table became so popular it was garden to table that was a highlight, so in a way we were ahead of the trend. This partnership showcased all the ways it is easy garden.

This is and has always been about getting outside, having fun planting, grabbing mint and making lemonade—basically trying new things. Activities of range of motion will happen anyway, and gardening keeps bodies nimble so why not do it outside in a meaningful way. Reaching for a sprig of basil or dill is a stretch, gripping a carrot can be a strength exercise, pinching a mint leaf can be fine motor skills. Standing and watering is a way to follow rules, sequencing task analysis and sequential learning. All of this is beneficial far beyond beautification.

To celebrate our 30-year anniversary we invited Karen, her daughter-in-law Cindy, and her granddaughters Jessica and Marissa to come plant flowers at our Cloman home. It was a lovely pre–Mother’s Day celebration. Granddaughter Jessica, says, “My nana definitely has a green thumb. I’ve watched her passion for gardening my entire life. Her home gardens are always beautifully well kept, but I know the ones she is most proud of are the garden beds at the Living Well homes. I’m so happy to watch her partnership with the arboretum still be continuing 30 years later so everyone can enjoy the beautiful gardens she cares so much about!” And Marissa, married to Karen’s grandson Zach, adds, “Being involved with Living Well and especially the gardening has brought me so much joy! I have learned everything I know about gardening from Karen and can’t wait for her to share her knowledge with her grandchildren. There is no better way to celebrate your birthday than with your family and gardening for ‘Betsy’s people,’ Happy Birthday Karen!”

Yep, Mother’s Day and a birthday, feels like a celebration indeed! How delightful to see an idea that was planted so long ago coming full circle with generations of moms gathered to help plant yet another garden, keeping the dream alive.




There is so much more to the partnership, here are a few highlights Jean shared with us from our 30 years together:

-Started gardening club at the Arboretum and sharing our produce with Living Well houses

-Built raised beds at many of the Living Well group homes

-Landscaped many of the homes

-Supplied plants each spring to fill the raised beds

-Taught classes on how to plant and maintain gardens

-Started a healthy eating program at Living Well, based on food grown in the gardens

-Started a meal-preparation program based on different cultural cooking styles and plants grown around the world

-A group of us took a trip down to Chicago to visit the Botanical Gardens and Arboretum (plus lots of other fun stuff)

-Made many seasonal flower arrangements

-Shared time with dogs and other animals at group homes

-Enjoyed time learning about and interacting with the animals at the Dodge Nature Center and Minnesota Zoo

-Hosted conferences and symposium with Living Well as part of events

-Celebrated the “apple season” by making pies up at Jeannie’s farm

-Taken many hayrides at the farm

Jean says, “Over the 30 years we have shared fun, laughter, and community together while learning about where our food comes from and enjoying the gifts of the earth.” Thank you Jean, we appreciate all you have done for us over the years.