MHC's Garden of Plenty

Posted: August 9, 2007

It's been four years since MHC students first set out to form a community garden on campus. As last year's commencement approached, a group of students currently working on the project were unsure of its future. But when the class of 2007 chose the garden as the recipient of its class gift, hope was renewed. With $5,200 to cover start up costs, administrative approval soon followed.

"It's so cool to see it actually happen after four years," said recent graduate Ally Neher '07, who along with Sarah Lince FP '09 and Morgan Lindsay '09 has been working in the garden nearly every day this summer. The group is now called the Mount Holyoke Garden Society and is affiliated with the Center for the Environment. Over the past several years, the group has met with students at other schools who have implemented gardens, including Yale, Middlebury, and Wesleyan. They are now talking with students at Smith who hope to start a garden as well.

The goal was to create an organic, native garden that would provide food for the Mount Holyoke community and also serve as an educational tool for students.

"We're raising awareness about local agriculture, growing our own food, and learning where it comes from," Lince said.

Planting started in mid-June, with crops that will be harvested in the fall: pumpkins, acorn squash, potatoes, and greens. Herbs planted include dill, cilantro, parsley, and basil, some of which they have already harvested. Native wild flowers such as petunias and nasturtiums are also growing in the garden.

Dining services has agreed to buy any food the garden produces at local rates, and the students will transport the food themselves to dining halls.

"Dining services has been very supportive and very flexible in terms of the schedule, since we really don't know when things will be harvested," Lince said. "It's great how much excitement there is, not just here and with dining services, but from the Five Colleges in general."

A Harvest Festival is planned for the end of September to introduce students to the garden and spread awareness.

The garden, however, is not just about food. "This is a hands-on outside laboratory where we're doing scientific studies," Lince said. "A lot of students want to work in a practical, get-me-in-the-dirt kind of way."

The group is collecting large amounts of data on everything from soil moisture to insects. They also are comparing a section of the garden fertilized with compost with another on which they used organic fertilizer. "This data can be used for all kinds of independent studies," Neher said. "It was designed as an experiment, not just for food production."

One of the group's advisors, visiting associate professor of earth and environment Beth Hooker, plans to use the garden in her Sustainable Agriculture class next spring. Martha Hoopes, Clare Boothe Luce Assistant Professor of Biological Sciences, is the group's other advisor.

"The project has all sorts of great educational values. Locally grown, organic food is a good topic of discussion when explaining some of the elements that contribute to global warming. Fuel use (and emissions) by heavy machinery on large-scale farms and when transporting food leads to increased carbon in the atmosphere; heavy fertilizer use can contribute to eutrophication and higher rates of respiration in soils and water bodies. Both of these topics pull in several biogeochemical cycles and force students to think about complex interactions and to face the fact that there are no easy answers. Organic food is not a cure-all, particularly if it is flown in from far away," Hoopes said.

She noted that students who are working in the garden will learn a great deal about plant-soil interactions, plant competition, predation or herbivory (animals or insects eating plants), and identification of plants and insects.

Professor of biological sciences Stan Rachootin is also using the garden for research with students and has helped the group with insect identification. They planted several cabbage relatives in the garden that will help Rachootin and his students study a fruit fly that eats cabbage leaves.

Lince, Neher, and Lindsay--who have a wide range of experience, from helping in their parents' gardens to working in organic food production--have had their ups and downs getting the garden up and running, including fending off cucumber beetles (no pesticides are used) and dealing with times of drought. "There's not a lot of pressure since we're just starting up, but we're in a good rhythm now," Lindsay said. "I'd be hard pressed to imagine a better summer job."

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