Community Garden Offers Students Lessons in Sustainability

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Junzhou Liu ’17, summer manager of Smith’s community garden, arranges some of its bounty at a mini-farmstand outside Chapin House.

On a recent Friday afternoon, Junzhou Liu arrives at the Smith College Community Garden on the north side of Prospect Street, ready to do battle with weeds that have sprouted after a few days of rain.

Liu, a rising sophomore who is this summer’s garden manager, is joined at the weekly garden spruce-up session by Maggie Weiler ’16, Dining Services summer sustainability intern.

The two quickly set to work in the dill patch, pulling weeds as butterflies flit past and the sun beats down.

“Is this a weed?” asks Weiler. Liu nods in the affirmative.

“OMG, how does this happen so fast?” Weiler muses, as she tosses the offending green stalk into a cardboard box for compost.

As she walks past, Lea Ahlen, office manager for Smith’s social science cluster, stops to peer over the metal fence surrounding the student-run garden.

“I walk by here every day to see what’s growing,” Ahlen says. “It’s coming along!”

The “Afternoon in the Garden” work sessions will continue on Fridays, 1:30–4:30 p.m., through August 15. Smith students, faculty and staff are invited to help with weeding, watering, harvesting and other tasks needed to sustain the organic garden during the height of the growing season.

With help from Dining Services, Liu has also set up a mini-farmstand with garden offerings such as blueberries, long beans and flowers for sale. The stand is open Mondays, noon–1 p.m., outside of Chapin House.

The community garden, which operates as a student organization at Smith, is marking its fourth summer at its current location between Northrup-Gillett and Lamont houses. What began six years ago as a pilot project on the college’s Fort Hill property moved in 2010 to a fifth-of-an-acre site just off of Elm Street.

Joanne Benkley, assistant director of Smith’s Center for the Environment, Ecological Design and Sustainability (CEEDS)—which provides partial funding for the summer garden manager—says students lobbied hard for the move.

“They really wanted to be on campus,” she explains.

Benkley said CEEDS has been supportive of the garden because it provides a way to expand learning about sustainable agriculture.

“The center’s mission is to help students integrate their knowledge about sustainable food and then apply it,” she says. “The garden is a great outlet because all of the students involved are doing exactly that.”

Gaby Immerman, faculty adviser for the community garden, notes that student managers and volunteers made significant improvements on the site this past spring.

A series of raised beds has provided cultivated space that’s easier to maintain, which will help keep the garden viable as student leaders change and the number of volunteers “ebbs and flows,” says Immerman, who is a laboratory instructor in biological sciences at Smith.

A picnic table has been installed, and new perennials and fruit trees are creating more of an “edible landscape,” Immerman adds.

As the garden project has matured, “the energies of students have turned more towards the use of the garden and to brainstorming ways it can be more effective,” Immerman says.

One strategy is partnering with local sustainable food nonprofits, says Claire Adams ’16, who was co-manager of the garden last year and summer garden manager in 2013.

For example, a collaboration this past spring with Help Yourself!, a group that plants edible food in public spaces around Northampton, netted a donation of fruit trees and volunteers to help maintain them, says Adams.

“The hope is to see more enthusiasm and a lot more partnerships in the future,” she adds. “It’s hugely empowering to have this space that’s totally student-run.”

For her part, Liu says the garden was a “big attraction to me” in coming to Smith from Beijing, China. Her grandparents farmed for years in the countryside, and in high school, she worked at a community-supported agriculture project in Beijing.

The big challenge in overseeing Smith’s community garden in summer is finding enough volunteers to work the plots, Liu says. Still, she’s been able to try out some ideas, such as using sheets of cardboard to help kill weeds more quickly.

Weiler, an American studies major at Smith, says working in the garden each week meshes with her internship in Dining Services and her larger goals as a student.

“I’m interested in the way that sustainable food interacts with other academic disciplines,” she says.

As to whether she’s developed a green thumb over the past several weeks, “I guess we’ll see,” says Weiler with a smile. “My goal is to grow a really nice salad.”