Clad in work boots and carrying shovels, hoes and watering cans, a group of Emory & Henry students gather to learn in a different kind of classroom.
This season, the students are growing in knowledge while managing an organic garden on campus that will help feed the college and the surrounding community throughout the year.
The half-acre garden that began in 2008 has flourished into an educational project that teaches students the sustainable principles of organic gardening and farming, said Dr. Ed Davis, associate professor of geography at Emory & Henry College.
The garden, which produces a wide range of vegetables, herbs and flowers, helps students become more aware of where their food comes from.
According to Davis, the garden was appropriately located behind the Buchanan-Blakemore House, a residence donated by the Blakemore family to the college in 2006.
“We’ve been told the Blakemores tended their garden years ago in the same location we chose. We’re returning to our roots by having this garden,” said Davis, who convinced college administrators of its benefits four years ago. “Generations ago, the college raised produce to feed the students who came to school here,” said Davis, who hopes the garden can continue to supply fresh produce and cut flowers for the college cafeteria, as well as to the Stone Soup Food Pantry, a project of Ecumenical Faith in Action, which serves residents in Washington County, Va.
In addition, a portion of the produce is sold to Harvest Table Restaurant, a farm-to-table restaurant in Meadowview, with the proceeds returning to the operation of the college garden. This spring and summer, the students also will sell their produce at the Glade Spring Farmers Market, which opened May 8.
Although a grant helps support the campus garden now, Davis expects sales from the garden will soon be sufficient to cover all costs.
“We’re building a local food system,” he said. The first year of operation, the garden produced 500 pounds of food, raising primarily fall crops, such as broccoli and cabbage. This year, the students hope to raise at least 2,000 pounds of produce harvested from April through November.
Davis, who was instrumental in starting the organic garden, explained the educational project is a way for students to learn about environmental systems with hands-on projects that have community applications. “We wanted to combine the service learning component with learning about ecosystems. A garden or farm is really just a simplified ecosystem.”
With faculty help, plus weekly input from Deni Peterson, a local organic gardener and environmental educator, the college garden has become a student-run project this year. Peterson is offering ongoing advice to E&H sophomore Mary Beth Tignor, who is student manager of the garden this year, along with help from E&H junior Nikki Lynn. The students have learned about adding compost, cover crops and mulch for good crop management, as well as how to design a rotation plan each year. They are committed to raising an organic garden that uses no chemical pesticides or fertilizers.
Peterson also has taught the students about succession cropping, which will allow the students to enjoy continuous harvests.
Operating on a limited budget, the students are relying on donations of supplies from the community.
Tignor said several garden items are needed for this season, such as a wheel barrow, watering cans, hammers, rubber mallets, screw drivers, a metal rake, a shovel, a water hose, lumber for building raised beds and shelving in the garden shed, and an outdoor rug for the shed floor.
The garden will be designed to operate year-round and especially during the school season when enrollment is the highest. During August, September and October, students harvest a gamut of summer garden vegetables. Spinach, kale, cabbage and other greens will be raised during the fall. Garlic bulbs will be planted at end of October on Halloween and harvested the following July.
A hoop house is a new addition to the garden and expected to be completed by fall. The unheated hoop house will extend the growing season and allow students to raise cold crops, such as carrots, greens and some cut flowers, such as Stock, that will be displayed on the cafeteria tables at the college.