Hilltop Gardens and Nature Center: A history of community gardening and education efforts at Indiana University

With the warm days of summer rolling along, the Bloomington Farmers Market is buzzing and the Midwest gardening season is in full swing. Widespread interest in local food production and sustainability has experienced a serious gain in momentum throughout the United States over the last several years, and talk of community gardens and horticultural education is likewise on the rise. However, such concepts are not new territory for the people of Bloomington. For more than sixty years, the city has been home to the Hilltop Garden and Nature Center, which promotes community gardening and supports one of the longest running youth gardening programs in the country.

Women emerge from the Hilltop Garden greenhouse with plants in hand, undated, circa 1950

Located near the Bloomington intersection of 10th Street and the SR 45/46 Bypass, Hilltop Garden and Nature Center began in 1948 as a one acre alfalfa field in the Botany Experimental Gardens, set aside for youth programming by Indiana University President Herman B Wells. From its inception until 1986, Hilltop Garden was overseen by director Barbara Shalucha, an Indiana University Professor of Botany with both personal and academic interest in applied botany through youth education. Experienced with children’s gardening programs through work at the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens, Shalucha was enthusiastic about educating young people by way of hands on recreational programming. She sought to instill her own passion for gardening and appreciation for the natural life cycle in young people. Since Hilltop’s inaugural youth gardening season in 1948, thousands of children (or “Hilltoppers,” as they are nicknamed) have attended the various programs which continue to be offered annually.

A woman and boy harvest radishes from a row at Hilltop Garden, undated, circa 1950

Over the years, specific programs and objectives have varied; along with its annual children’s planting season, Hilltop has also supported plant sales, flower shows, festivals, tours, workshops, and annual honor days. Though youth programming has always been its major focus, Hilltop Garden and Nature Center has additionally provided hundreds of Indiana University students with training to pursue work through similar programs post-graduation, thus spawning a diverse network of advocates for youth gardening.

What began as a single acre plot of land has now grown to encompass five acres of planting fields at the original Hilltop Garden and Nature Center site as well as a sizable greenhouse and classroom space. Financial support and administrative structure overseeing Hilltop have shifted over the years, and the programs are currently in a state of fluctuation and adjustment. However, the Indiana University Archives is home to a rich body of records attesting to Hilltop Garden and Nature Center’s burgeoning development over the course of six decades. Both the Indiana University Hilltop Garden and Nature Center records and founding director Barbara Shalucha papers are bursting with history. Various administrative files, reports, publications, program and event materials, awards, architectural drawings, scrapbooks, photographs, and multimedia are available for your perusal here at the Indiana University Archives!