Shelter Gardens on the grounds of Shelter Insurance Co. on West Broadway may be my favorite site in Columbia. While I am a big fan of the openness of many of the Columbia Park and Recreation’s 70-some parks and, of course, our three college campuses, the intimacy of the Shelter Gardens still intrigues me.

I have frequented the gardens since coming to MU in 1986. They have served as a harbor and sanctuary after frustrating academic and public meetings, during the COVID-19 shut-in and while digesting disturbing personal and political news.

The schoolhouse, a replica of the one-room school in Brunswick, Missouri, has provided a good hideaway to read and to work quietly. I usually leave my cellphone in the car.

When construction of Shelter’s new building on Ash Street commenced about two years ago, I worried that the gardens would be leveled and paved over, but the refurbishing of the stone-and wrought-iron fences and the upgraded and expanded employee memorial wall, tucked away in the back corner, assures me that the gardens will be preserved.

The gardens’ hallmark to most Columbians may be the Sunday evening “Concerts in the Gardens,” usually held in June and July but canceled by COVID-19 this year.

It may be the most generational, racially and musically diverse event in town. A snapshot of hundreds of people sitting in lawn chairs or on blankets listening to local musicians in front of, or in, the gazebo, with dozens of Black, brown and white kids running around freely would be an iconic image of summer in our town.

The gardens are wonderfully diverse, too. There are 18 varieties of Japanese maple, 35 varieties of evergreens, 49 varieties of roses and more than 15,000 annuals and perennials — all right here in mid-Missouri and open to the public from sunrise to sunset, except for Christmas Day.

The garden was started in 1974 and has grown on the 5-acre site to contain 14 features, including a garden for the blind, a waterfall and river and several memorial areas that have been reconfigured and modified because of aging and changes in use. Previously, two water features had Koi, but since they tend to eat the water plants, the fish have been combined into the main waterfall area.

A Vietnam War Memorial was installed in 1997 with a well-designed layout that ensures a breeze among the bamboo on either side of the path. A cactus garden was established in 1992 as a memorial to agents and employees who fought in Desert Storm, but in 2013 it was changed into a thornless succulent garden because kids enjoyed climbing the rocks in the garden.

My single favorite spot may be the four-way path intersection made by the four walled-in flower beds that are redesigned each year. The beds are often mirror images and consist of at least four varieties of plants of differing heights, colors and textures.

The size of the gardens makes it possible to follow seasonal change more easily than if the same plantings were spread over more space. Almost all the plantings are marked with both English and scientific names.

Shelter Gardens are frequented by horticulture and forestry students. Elementary students also visit on class trips to gather specimens for leaf collections. It is not unusual to see students and artists taking advantage of the colors and shapes spread throughout the garden. It would be fascinating to see a show-and-tell by students showing their drawings, writing and collections inspired by their visits.

In a normal year, there are employees walking at lunch or on break and people of all ages and interest levels wandering about.

Several small groups meet weekly and bring their own chairs and space them out to meet with friends, as well as families with takeout food or picnics. The gardens are also a well-used venue for weddings and prom pictures.

The gardens appear to have minimal security presence. They are there and friendly but are probably unnoticed by most visitors. Likewise, I’ve never noticed horseplay, litter or mischief — probably as a result of the environmental design and maintenance of the Gardens.

The gardens are maintained by Katrina Monnig, superintendent of grounds, and six other full-time employees in the Grounds Department. The gardens are always in tip-top shape and full of surprises for visitors to appreciate nature, for recreation or just a stroll. They are one of Columbia’s treasures.

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