Campus garden provides opportunity for education and cooperation

Submitted by Sarah DeClerk on March 12, 2013 – 1:41 pmNo Comment

For the past year, volunteers have been transforming a vacant lot on the edge of campus in to a resource the university can use – a garden.

The garden is visibly in its early stages. The lot is dotted with piles of mulch, branches and bricks. A neat stack of logs sits curiously to one side.

The native plant garden, the project’s centerpiece, is already well-established, however. Its beds are lined with brick and house rows of small plants, unassuming in the winter and marked with little, white signs. It smells like earth and the promise of what is to come.

“It’s too early to look like much because it’s winter, but I think it will look really great soon,” said Krista Lewis, Ph.D. assistant anthropology professor and the garden’s main faculty advisor. “It’s making slow progress, but they’ve laid a good foundation.”

The project began in March 2012, when the sustainability committee offered a $1,500 grant to fund a campus garden. The Anthropology Club, partnering with the anthropology department, the Nonprofit Leadership Student Alliance and the Central Arkansas New Agrarian Society, accepted the opportunity.

“We’re doing the hard part now,” said Autumn Erickson, 29, a junior anthropology major and student organizer for the garden. Volunteers are using the resources they acquired to lay the garden’s groundwork, she said. This includes designing the garden, constructing beds and laying down cardboard and mulch – organic weed control, she said.

The project’s first endeavor was the native plant garden, Erickson said. The garden features Arkansas plants that are low-maintenance and drought-resistant, she said. It includes some rare species, like tufted Barbara’s Button, as well as species that are anthropologically significant, like Rattlesnake Master, which was used to make textiles, she said. Volunteers have already planted over 70 native plants, most of which will take two years to mature, she said.

The group is also constructing a Hugelkultur bed, she said. The bed starts with a base of rotting logs, which hold moisture. On top of the logs there will be layers of mulch and branches, and finally soil and plants. The bed will provide a reservoir of water for the vegetables that the group will plant there, she said.

The garden’s newest project is a rainwater catchment and irrigation system, she said. The sustainability committee recently provided the garden with a $500 grant to fund the project, she said.

Since its inception, the project has drawn support from groups on and off campus, Erickson said.

The alumni association donated the bricks, she said, and the facilities management donated a mulch pile the size of a van. The Golden Key Honor Society is sponsoring a volunteer day, she said, and for Earth Day, the biology department will plant a fig tree in the garden.

In addition, the garden has partnered with World Services for the Blind, Erickson said. Volunteers with the garden have been helping out in the organization’s greenhouse, and in exchange they have provided the garden with seeds, soil and expertise, she said.

“It’s amazing how many random people have contributed,” said Holly Warg, 22, senior international studies major and eco-intern for the sustainability committee.

“Before the garden, I never really hung out on campus,” said Warg. Erickson agreed that the garden provides a space where students can socialize while they work, without being pressured by faculty.

Primarily, however, the garden will be a living laboratory, she said. Many different programs can benefit from the garden, she said. She noted that biology, botany, physics and anthropology classes could benefit, and added that she would like to the art department involved as well.

“We really want different departments on campus to be engaged,” she said.

Lewis said that she would be using the native plant garden in her experimental archeology class, to study how people native to the region used their botanical resources. Students can explore how these societies lived by making baskets and shoes out of plant fiber, or by studying medicinal and edible plants, she said.

“There are so many different educational opportunities on this lot,” Warg said.

Students can also use the garden as a service learning or volunteer resource, or as an extracurricular, Erickson said.

In addition, the garden will revitalize an underutilized space, she said. The garden is located in a seemingly neglected area of campus. It can be found past Lot 12, behind some outdated and abandoned gas pumps, in a partially fenced lot. It is an area that could use some beautification.

Erickson said that the group wants to have some sensory plants, like mint or roses, in mobile containers near the garden’s entrance, which would make the garden more visible and appealing. If the art department got involved, she said, they could have sculptures in the garden. They might also add some benches, where students could sit and enjoy the garden, she said.

The group may also plant some blackberries along the fence, she said. The thorny bushes would add security as well as produce. Although they have had minimal security risks so far, the lot is isolated from the campus and adjacent to a busy street, so they anticipate some security risks, Erickson said.

The garden has plenty of room for development, and the garden team has plenty of ideas. The group would like to build a shed, to store their low-cost tools and equipment, she said. They have also considered adding a compost system, she said. Other ideas include bat boxes, to discourage mosquitoes and other pests, and night-vision video cameras, which would capture the activities of nocturnal wildlife, she said.

“We have so many ideas and dreams,” Warg said.

Erickson said that she is concerned with making sure the garden carries on after her graduation. It would be a shame to lay the groundwork only for the project to be abandoned, she said. To remedy this, she is considering having the university sign a contract to ensure the garden remains operational for at least five years, she said.

From her research on campus gardens at other universities, Warg found that student participation is vital to a garden’s success, she said. “Really, what keeps it going is the students,” she said.

“We’re very open to more participation,” Lewis said. “We welcome as many volunteers as possible, who can help in any capacity. You don’t have to be a gardening expert. Anyone can bring in anything they want.”


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