Learning and Growing: Garden as Laboratory at U.Va.

July 28, 2009 — Gardening is a good way to learn.

Two student gardening projects at the University of Virginia are natural education laboratories. At Hereford College, the residents' garden is in its third year, while a student-run community garden was built this spring on the west side of the intersection of McCormick and Alderman roads.

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"People don't know how food grows," said Megan Bucknum, summer director of the 400-square-foot Alderman garden plot that includes 23 raised beds. Students work the organic garden, with most of the produce being donated to the Charlottesville Community Food project, which provides vegetables to low-income families. The volunteers take a small amount of the produce for their use.

The Hereford gardens, involving faculty, staff and students, are part of an ambitious agenda. Hereford resident and physics professor Keith Williams, who oversees the gardens, said students learn many lessons by tending their food from seed-pod to plate.

Aside from food plants, Williams and his students have planted herbs such as bee balm and borage, which have medicinal uses, and stevia, which can be used as a sweetener. They also planted a variety of flowers to attract bees and repel insect pests.

The garden is Williams' organic classroom, as he and his students experiment with planting techniques to determine which plants go well together, using "cover crops" to prevent erosion when the primary crops are not in season and "trap plants," such as eggplant, to draw bugs away from other plants.

Initially created to provide fresh vegetables, the Hereford garden now has a broader scope. Williams plans to make ethanol from the corn crop, can some of the produce, dry herbs and save heirloom seeds to plant next year. Students harvested wheat and rye cover crops, which they will mill into flour to use in baking bread.

"We are dealing with the broad issues of gardening and small-scale farming and sustainability," Williams said.

Dan Michaelson, 20, a student founder of the Hereford garden, has tended a home vegetable garden for years. Having one at school was a natural extension for him.

"My family had a garden and I had taken it over for food production," Michaelson said.

Michaelson has learned not only new growing techniques, but also how to work better with others. About six students work in the garden during the summer, but that number doubles in the fall, which makes it important to sort through personalities and skill levels.

"You have to find out what they are good at," Williams said. "You can have someone who is filled with enthusiasm, but they have never done this before. It's a learning garden, so all skill levels are welcome."

The students with whom Williams has worked are very willing to learn. Michaelson, pursuing environmental science and engineering majors, said he is able to apply class lessons, such as water management, in the garden and share his knowledge with others.

The Hereford garden will extend late into the fall with some hardy herbs and plants such as kale and spinach. Cover crops will be planted to protect the soil in the winter and then, in the early spring, students will use a small greenhouse to start plants from seeds.

"There is always something happening," Williams said.

The Alderman garden is more of a self-taught lesson in organic and sustainable practices. Students capture rainwater in barrels and purchase compost from Panorama Paydirt Compost, which helps complete an ecological circle. Food waste from the Observatory Hill Dining Hall is composted at Panorama Paydirt as part of a student-driven project initiated by Michaelson.

The Alderman garden contains berry bushes and strawberry plants, tomatoes, peppers, squash, kale, cauliflower, melons, carrots, beets, eggplant, peas, beans, corn, pumpkins, spinach and chard. Some students plan to extend the season with cold frames and also to plant cover crops.

"This is an experimental year for us," Bucknum said. "We wanted to see what would grow."

Bucknum, one of the organizers of the student garden project, graduated in May with a master's degree in urban and environmental planning from the School of Architecture. She agreed to stay in Charlottesville for the summer to manage the garden. Dana Smith, also from the urban and environmental planning program, will manage the garden in the fall.

Lindsey L. Daniels, sustainability coordinator at Facilities Management and a volunteer at the Alderman garden, said she has learned a lot about plants in general. The availability of fresh vegetables has also improved her diet and inspired her creativity.

"I am eating better," she said. "I always just ate whatever was put in front of me. Now I think a lot more about what I put into my body. I am learning how to fix fresh vegetables and I have even baked squash and chocolate chip cookies."

Information about the Alderman garden appears at the volunteers' blog. Information about the Hereford garden is also available online.

— By Matt Kelly