UMass Amherst Student Permaculture Garden Committee Wins National Award for Engaging Students on and Off Campus

AMHERST, Mass. - The University of Massachusetts Amherst Permaculture Garden Committee may be small, but the super-size dedication of its 12 students and three staff members has gained the campus national recognition for offering students’ hands-on learning and experience in sustainable land use.

The student-led group, part of Auxiliary Enterprises, recently won the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators’ (NASPA) Silver Excellence Award in the Careers, Academic Support, Service Learning and Community Service category for developing "transformative, innovative and data-driven programs" for students via the Franklin Permaculture Garden on campus. NASPA is the leading organization for professionals in student affairs.

Ryan Harb, chief sustainability coordinator at UMass Amherst, says the national competition asked the permaculture group to show how they provide opportunities for students to learn about eco-friendly gardening, composting, water conservation, energy savings and related practices at the same time they’re enjoying hands-on experiences that benefit the campus and local communities. While growing fresh, local fruits, nuts, berries, herbs, flowers and vegetables for campus dining, the permaculture group works to raise awareness of holistic, sustainable land use practices.

Over the last gardening season, this was measured in part by sharing with 5,000 incoming students in September what Harb calls the inspiring story of how the first campus permaculture garden began, and by involving more than 1,000 campus and community volunteers from grade school to grad school. Volunteers from Amherst, Shutesbury, Shelburne-Buckland schools, Big Brothers/Big Sisters, Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter School, Amherst Community Child Care and Marks Meadow Summer Action Camp planted more than 1,500 edible plants.

Harb adds, "We received a lot of positive feedback from students who say the experience of volunteering at the permaculture garden changed their lives. One wrote that working at the garden filled the past year with hope, happiness, a sense of purpose and of community."

It was in fall 2010 that Harb, the first student to earn a UMass Amherst master’s degree in green building and a certified permaculture garden designer, organized volunteers to transform a one-quarter-acre conventional lawn in front of the Franklin Dining Commons into a high-production, low maintenance garden. They used no fossil fuels on site and moved over 100,000 pounds of organic matter by hand.

Permaculture, which highlights perennial vegetables and traditional annual crops, was developed to help solve environmental problems associated with modern agriculture. It seeks to restore ecosystem health by mimicking natural processes. Permaculture gardens are designed with the local ecology in mind and to require minimal maintenance.

"Another of our goals is to create a model of sustainability education and practice here that we hope to see replicated at many other schools over time," Harb says. "We’re grateful for support from our fellow students, faculty, staff and especially Chancellor Robert Holub."

Rachel Dutton, a new UMass Amherst sustainability coordinator, adds, "Winning the NASPA Excellence Award is a great honor, and we hope that all the students and volunteers who’ve participated in the creation of these gardens feel pride in the work that they’ve contributed."

UMass Amherst will host a conference in June to teach techniques and encourage other colleges and universities to establish permaculture gardens on their own campuses.