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How Does Your Garden Grow?

Franklin Permaculture Garden’s Decade of Bounty

Since its founding 10 years ago, the Franklin Permaculture Garden has produced fresh vegetables in abundance: Last year alone, the university's permaculture gardens produced 1,896 pounds of produce, much of which became dining hall ingredients. However, the broader impact of the Franklin Permaculture Garden lies in the wealth of sustainable practices that students, volunteers, and community members have gleaned from this vibrant program. 

"Our goal is to help students shift from being pure consumers to also being producers," says Daniel Bensonoff, sustainability coordinator of campus gardens. "The work we do here gives students practical experience and a theoretical background in ecological design, as well as horticulture, beekeeping, mushroom cultivation, and herbal medicine work."

Launched in 2010, the Franklin Permaculture Garden began as the brainchild of a few ecologically minded students and soon became a formalized program under the auspices of UMass Dining Services. An academic component would soon follow in the form of a permaculture gardening course, offered by the university's Stockbridge School of Agriculture. 

Early in its life cycle, the quarter-acre Franklin Garden earned admiration and recognition on and off campus, most notably as the recipient of a 2012 White House innovation award. Since then, three additional permaculture gardens have blossomed across campus, exponentially increasing food production and student involvement. "At this point, the program is really integrated into the university," says Bensonoff. "It's become a part of student lore and what UMass culture is all about." 

What is 'permaculture gardening,' exactly? Bensonoff defines it as the practice of creating agricultural ecosystems that provide for human needs while benefiting the environment around them. By approaching food production through the lens of an interdependent ecosystem, he explains, permaculture practitioners are able to integrate other disciplines into their gardening, including mushroom and honey production. For example, in 2020 alone, the garden's five beehives yielded 50 pounds of honey. In turn, the honeybees helped increase the productivity of the garden through their pollinator services. Students have also added composting, rainwater harvesting, and solar-charging stations as garden features. "The idea is to shift from a resource-consuming landscape to a resource-producing landscape," says Bensonoff. 

In addition to providing students with organic ingredients grown in view of the dining hall, UMass Dining Services hosts educational events, workshops, and speaking panels designed to share agricultural and environmental best practices. One recent event, dubbed "Diet for a Cooler Planet," showcased regenerative foods that sequester carbon, teaching participants how to modify their diet to reduce their carbon footprint. 

In addition to a semester-long practicum course on sustainable gardening, the Permaculture Initiative offers less formal ways for the UMass community to get involved, including volunteer opportunities and a variety of community outreach programs. For those simply looking to enjoy the garden's bounty, Bensonoff suggests stopping by the UMass Student Farmers' Market, held in the fall in front of the W. E. B. Du Bois Library. Visitors to the market can expect an assortment of fresh vegetables and herbs, tea blends, tinctures, and non-traditional medicines made from garden ingredients. 

True to the mission of the Permaculture Initiative, Bensonoff and his students bring the message of healthy food systems beyond the boundaries of UMass to the surrounding communities. "We provide garden tours for a lot of public schools and garden societies locally. In the next few weeks, we're hosting a workshop for a group of middle school students from Springfield and Holyoke," says Bensonoff. "Education is a big part of our yield and that includes a lot of community outreach."

Looking back on a decade of prosperity, Bensonoff and his student-gardeners also have an eye on future expansion, including increased food production, greater plant diversity, and bolstered partnerships with other departments on campus. From there, the sky's the limit. "I would love to see a fruit corridor here on campus where students can walk through and pick fresh fruit on their way to class," says Bensonoff. Most importantly, he sees further opportunity to educate students as informed ecological citizens. "We need to send students into the world knowing what they can do in their daily lives to be mindful ecological citizens. At this point in history, that needs to be part of a well-rounded college education."  

Learn more about the Franklin Garden and the UMass Permaculture Initiative at their website, or contact Daniel Bensonoff at dbensonoff@umass.edu.