How Does Your Garden Grow?
Sustainability practices teach delicious lessons
“Locavore” has a whole new meaning when earth-to-table is only a matter of yards. That’s the distance between the permaculture garden now in its first growing season and Franklin Dining Commons at UMass Amherst. Ryan Harb ’08, ’10G, chief sustainability specialist for Auxiliary Services, oversees the venture, explaining that it’s one of the first in the nation to supply food to a campus community and was inspired by faculty and student visits to his own such garden.
Preparation of the site began in the fall of 2010, when enthusiastic students, relying solely on their muscle power, wheelbarrows, and shovels, began transforming most of the lawn area in front of the dining hall. By the time they were done, they’d worked in 250,000 pounds of compost, wood chips, and cardboard, all supplied from campus. During the winter, work continued on the design phase, overseen by the 15-student-member Permaculture Committee.
Fifteen students regularly volunteered at the site during spring semester, with three staying on for the summer, joined by 10 regular reinforcements. They have come from a variety of backgrounds, including Sustainable Food and Farming in the Plant, Soil, and Insect Sciences Department. Some earn academic credit as they learn principles of permaculture: no tilling, sheet mulch, gentle aeration from the surface, and enrichment of the soil with compost and minerals. Others have no academic connection with agriculture but of these some have gardened before. “What’s needed is passion,” says Ryan “to make the project a success.”
Planting began after Commencement and lasted several weeks. Implementing the chosen design, students created a leaf-shaped center filled with such annuals as cherry tomatoes, Swiss chard, potatoes, carrots, and squash. A culinary section boasts basil, cilantro, parsley, and chives. High- and low-bush blueberries and lesser-known honeyberry, seaberry, and juneberry bushes constitute the berry section. The three-year-old, six-feet-tall fruit trees include varieties of Asian pear, persimmon, peach, and quince.
Students are testing the nutrient density of produce, expected to be higher than that of conventionally grown crops, and will be giving Dining Services a day’s notice of harvesting, so the chefs can plan menus around fresh items. The season’s total yield is expected to be around 1,000 pounds.
“This is a good, hands-on sustainability project on campus and we make it easily accessible to volunteers and visitors,” says Harb, himself the first graduate of the university’s master’s program in green building. He adds that “great word-of-mouth” has already brought 200 volunteers to help out from time to time.