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Despite growing pains, organic garden still connects students together

  • The organic garden began behind a duplex Westminster College owned in 2014. With the duplex there it limited the space of the garden -- since then, the garden has expanded to increase accessibility and the number of classes held there. (Photo Courtesy: Environmental Center)

In 2008 Westminster College welcomed the organic garden: the space available to hold classes and teach students about food accessibility.

Christy Clay, chair of environmental studies and professor of biology, said students came up with the idea to host a garden on campus. 

“The garden started with some students guerilla gardening, planting some plants in a backyard that the college owned and seeing what happened,” Clay said. 

Clay, who teaches multiple classes in the garden, said it’s a powerful tool and teaching method for students who have no experience in gardening. 

“It’s a really powerful tool for those first time folks in terms of that experience,” she said. “I planted a seed this big and it turned into this amazing head of lettuce.” 

In 2018, the Environmental Center received zoning permission to knock down the condemned duplex by the garden and expand. Now, there’s an entrance from the road making it accessible for wheelchairs and with more space for classroom teaching. 

“The garden is always open, you can always stroll through there,” said Bridger Layton, manager of the environmental center. “With the duplex coming down there is a really cool area with some furniture that turns into tables or benches and so you can create a really nice teaching space or a space to do homework.” 

Layton said his vision for the garden’s future is to be student-run to enhance the learning — becoming more accessible to the campus as a whole.

How the garden has affected campus

The organic garden is an amazing tool because everybody eats, Clay said, creating a common interest. Having a common interest, like eating, allows students to connect when they are in the garden. 

“The garden provides fresh produce to campus,” said Eliza Clark, the garden coordinator. “Our aim is to grow things that are identifiable, most things that can be eaten raw, small things like baby watermelon that won’t be wasted, and foods that are accessible.” 

Students said they have found the garden to be a place to have conversations and find peace. 

“In the garden I can ‘get away’ from campus because there is such a peaceful feeling there and when I have volunteered on garden days,”said Brylee Stone, Westminster’s thrift collective coordinator, in an email. “I have the opportunity to touch the earth and feel the richness of life that the garden holds.” 

Growing pains throughout its history

Most of the challenges in the garden’s beginning were administrative, according to Christy Clay. 

“We didn’t have support in the early stages at the level of the president that is not the current president,” Clay said. “At this stage we appreciate the fact that we have since been able to expand the garden [which] clearly required administrative support so that challenge is no longer something we face.” 

One of the real challenges is student turnover when every class graduates, according to Clay.

“When we have that cohort turnover we have to reintroduce something of it to an effect: remember food, remember agriculture, remember growing things,” Clay said.  

Students come together every year to keep the organic garden functioning because of students coming and going and there are always changes being made.  

“It’s interesting sometimes when you are standing outside of something and watching the interest of the student shift over time,” said Bridger Layton.

The challenge is finding how to best engage with current students, according to Layton.

Weather also changes constantly, causing difficulties about knowing what to plant and when to plant.  

“Last year there were some challenges in adapting to the weather,” said Natalie Boren, an environmental ethic and sustainable design major in an email. “The season was cut short and some of the vegetables didn’t live for as long as we anticipated.”

Issues with human interaction in the garden has also become an issue.  

“There’s also been some issues about keeping the garden safe,” Boren said. “Last year, pumpkins were smashed and we weren’t able to use them for what we intended. That was a bummer.”

How the future of the garden will impact Westminster

Students are advocating to see the garden expand to other areas of campus. 

“There are areas on campus that have the potential for this expansion,” said Boren in an email. “I know students are trying to advocate for this. I hope they’re successful.” 

Paul Nasca, a student who works in the garden, said the garden will have a long future because of the committed students who care for it.

Overall, the commitment to sustainability in the age of global warming is increasingly important. 

“Climate change is the biggest challenge we are going to face; we do not have a choice,” said Nasca, an economics and philosophy major in an email. “Interest in sustainable living is only going to grow. The Organic Garden will continue to be the place where Westminster students will learn that lifestyle.”

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Alexys Smith
Alexys Smith is a junior planning to graduate with a Bachelor of Arts in communication. Alexys enjoys bringing people's stories to life through video production, photography and writing. She works with the Dumke Center for Civic Engagement and is the treasurer of the film club at Westminster. In her free time you can find her dancing, taking a tap or analyzing a film.

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