Just east of the Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre, 4,000 square feet of raised-bed garden boxes cradle sprouting vegetables that bask in this sun-filled outdoor classroom. Vines of pole beans grow overhead to form playful tunnels next to towering stalks of red amaranth. Nearby, student volunteers use pitchforks to turn piles of composting leaves and cafeteria food scraps. Each summer and fall, students harvest hundreds of pounds of produce such as tomatoes, lettuce, fava beans, and squash from here and the U’s other organic gardening plots in front of the Sill Undergraduate Studies Center. These are the “interdisciplinary” edible campus gardens.When Fred Montague, a professor (lecturer) in biology, retired in 2010, the future of the campus gardens was in peril. Montague had been instrumental in establishing the Sill Center gardens in 1996 and later the Pioneer gardens in 2002, and had worked to organize students to maintain them. His departure, and the worries it generated about the gardens’ continuation, prompted students, staff, and faculty to form a coalition to campaign for more administrative support and garden-centered programming.In 2010, Chartwells, the company that runs the U’s Dining Services, agreed to provide food scraps (more than 500 pounds each week just from the Union Food Court) for composting in the gardens. The company also became the biggest purchaser of the vegetables the students grow in the gardens. Students also established an annual fall farmer’s market and a “Social Soup” lecture series with the College of Social Work that is held on campus monthly during the academic year to discuss issues of sustainability relating to food. A Gardens Advisory Committee was created, along with a part-time garden coordinator position for long-term maintenance and expansion.
In recent years, students have worked to make the gardens a living laboratory for various disciplines. In 2011, students taking the annual summer Organic Gardening biology course worked with the Biology Department’s stable-isotope analysis laboratory to test the authenticity of locally and commercially grown vegetables labeled organic or conventional. While they found no deception or nutritional differences between the two types, the store-bought vegetables had higher nitrogen levels from fertilizers than the locally grown samples, indicating possible nitrogen runoff problems at the large commercial farms from where the store-bought produce originated. Meanwhile, two entomology students created an internship-based research project by documenting the rich insect diversity in the gardens compared with nearby lawn landscapes. An MBA student assessed the financial feasibility of an industrial-scale composting system on campus and recommended such a facility be built. Social Work students researched the practicalities and values that a community-supported agriculture project using the gardens would bring to the campus, and created a strategic plan for implementation. Architecture students drafted plans for the expansion of the Pioneer Memorial Theatre garden, which have been partially carried out. And Civil Engineering students plan to build a bioretention filter to capture storm water and possible landscape contaminants from periodically flooding the gardens. “We are higher ed, with regard to the gardens,” says Office of Sustainability Director Myron Willson. “So we have the capacity to bring in civil engineering and botany and continuing ed and social justice, and bring all of those things together in an interdisciplinary effort. It’s not just growing food.”
Although students still fight for sufficient funding for garden stewardship, the gardens are generally now more accepted as functionally and aesthetically important to the campus landscape, compared with past years. “They’re not just some throwaway, granola program down in the corner,” says Willson. “We can show that the gardens actually enhance six of the seven principles guiding the Campus Master Plan.”