Wednesday, December 9, 2009


The UA organic garden has received numerous compliments on the effectiveness of its compost in creating and maintaining a healthy soil structure with good tilth and proper nutrients. A good compost is a great tool in sustainability - it suppresses plant disease, increases pest resistance, and contributes to the overall health of the soil and the crops. The basic elements that make up compost are food, air, and water. Carbon and nitrogen are key elements in composts, specifically because nitrogen gas is not useful to plants, and must be converted into a useable form. The amount of nitrogen in the soil and the bacteria population are directly related. That is, the more nitrogen that exists in the soil, the more bacteria there is to consume organic matter. When the bacteria die and/or create microbe manure, the nutrients are released and become available for plants.

Compost piles will eat almost any kind of organic matter (legumes, leaves, plant residues, hay, MANURE, etc). When deciding a location for a compost pile, keep in mind the amount of sunlight it receives – you don’t want it to dry out. Aeration is an important factor in compost as well. Too much aeration can lead to drying out before it decomposes, but on the other hand, poorly aerated compost gives off a foul odor and decreases the quality. The proper amount of water and air is also necessary in maintaining healthy compost. Moisture is required for microbial activity, and although microbial activity will continue without adequate oxygen levels, the end product is not ideal.

Autumn Greens

We gradually bid farewell to our summer garden over the course of the semester, uprooting the basil plants in August and the tomatoes in early October. The thai hot peppers lasted until November, but we had to uproot them to make room for our fall garden. (There were still TONS of peppers left on the vine, and after we took bundles home with us, we still had to throw some in the compost pile. I dried half of the ones I hoarded, and made pepper vinegar with the rest.) On our last visit to the garden, we had a little salad taste test of all the garden greens. We concocted a mixture of equal proportion broccoli leaves, mustard greens, kohlrabi, chives, and turnips, and had breakfast in the garden as we weeded. YUM!

Industrial agriculture has grown increasingly paradoxical, replacing natural processes with synthetic practices and treating farms as factories. Consequently, food has become a marketing entity rather than a necessity to sustain life. The American perception of food has evolved into a paradox as well, placing emphasis on health foods and fad diets, but ultimately harboring ignorance and apathy for what we put into our body. In response to the corruption of modern agriculture, there has been a recent emphasis on sustainability, organic farming, eating locally, and the Slow Food movement. Ironically, the effort to counter industrial agriculture emphasizes simplicity and entails the return to a more basic way of life.

I arrived at the University of Alabama in August, possessing a general awareness of the controversial issue from what I learned in a high school environmental science course, but not expecting to harbor a passion for sustainable agriculture. During the first week of school I stumbled upon an opportunity to visit the student organic garden (about a ten minute drive from campus), and desiring a new hobby, but mostly a way of meeting new people, I decided to go. Little did I know at the time, that seemingly insignificant one-hour visit to the garden would result in a four month independent study, a passion for food, involvement in the student organization Homegrown Alabama, inquiry into the philosophical and technical aspects of organic farming, and ultimately an increased awareness of my role in culture and perception of myself. During my first semester of college, the garden not only served as a place to meet new people, learn about plant growth and ecology, and eat fresh veggies, but also acted as a grounding force of simplicity. I expect to continue my involvement in the garden next semester, and plan to find work on an organic farm this summer. Needless to say, that one visit has inspired a passion and hobby, not to mention the assurance that no matter what lies in my financial future, I will have the security of being able to grow my own food.

With that said, I believe that more students should have the opportunity to extract personal growth from gardens. The arboretum, owned by the University, has a great atmosphere, but is inaccessible to most students who don’t have cars, don’t have the time to make the trip, or aren’t aware that it exists. Every year, college campuses around the country are establishing on-campus gardens to double as a classroom and a way in which to incorporate fresh, organic produce into dining halls and community farmers markets. This movement is an attempt to counter the previously mentioned agricultural practices, teach students the technical skills of gardening, create a sense of self-sufficiency, improve campus aesthetics, and act as a gathering place for the community. Also, evident in the growing population, climate change, and depletion of natural resources, there is a growing need to reevaluate our relationship with the natural world, and an on-campus garden would be paramount in teaching youth the value of sustainability.

Another, and perhaps more obvious benefit of instituting an on-campus garden is the food it would produce. Our perception of food is distorted; we have become so accustomed to seeing tomatoes on the grocery store shelves in December, that we have lost touch with the knowledge that tomatoes are in fact a summer crop. There are no seasons anymore. Industrial agriculture has de-emphasized the value of food, and growing up in a society where food was always accessible, I, the token American, evaluated the difference between frozen fish sticks and fresh broccoli based solely on taste. After reading Michael Pollan’s food narratives and becoming more aware of the philosophy of food, I am not only convinced that the hackneyed term “you are what you eat” is valid, but believe that food can be a lens into our culture and ourselves. Food is one of the most tangible connections to where we live, and knowing where our food comes from provides us with a sense of place in the community and in culture. A garden would allow for students to perhaps regain a trace of basic agricultural knowledge and reevaluate their relationship with food.

An on-campus garden would harbor a sense of self-sufficiency, and raise awareness about current environmental problems. The University argues that available land needs to be reserved for the potential of new classrooms in the future, and a garden would be secondary, but I view this as invalid and even contradictory reasoning. Evident in my own experience during the past four months, a garden is not just an aesthetically pleasing space, but a classroom in itself, where students would be able to make connections to their relationship to the natural world and gain insight into their own values and origins. It would be ultimately student-run, which would encourage leadership, something that exceeds what is taught in a classroom. It would encourage a more hands-on approach to learning, and transform the tangible skills into broader aspects of the students’ life. While money is needed for initial costs, the goal would be for the garden to eventually become self-sustaining and possibly turn a profit at local farmers markets. Ultimately, instituting a garden on campus would inspire creativity, community, and personal growth.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

In his “In Defense of Food”, Michael Pollen posits, “most of what we’re consuming today is no longer, strictly speaking, food at all” (7). American culture has an eating disorder. Not only have obesity and chronic heart become epidemics in the past decade, but we consciously compromise food for synthetic nutrients, health for mass distribution, land for mass production, and community for a quick bite that often leaves us feeling unsatisfied. Worst of all, most of us cannot talk about where our food comes from. But as a nation struggling with eating, a movement is on the rise. Consumers want chemical-free produce. They want to know where their food was produced and if other were exploited in the process. They want real, ethical, healthy food. And as a University on the forefront of education and a beacon for the common good, we have an inherent responsibility to address these concerns in the context of the classroom. We should be teaching more students about what they are eating, raising awareness about devastating industrial agricultural practices, and asking critical environmental and ethical questions about food production. While we have taken some necessary steps in this direction, bringing an organic garden on campus is essential to meeting these demands and making the University a global leader in agricultural sustainability.

An increasingly popular attitude of consumers in response to the rising anxiety towards mass food production and chemical treatment is “Eat Local. Eat Organic”. As a result, many Universities have started organic gardens to provide a classroom that creates a direct relationship between students and farming, including the University of New Hampshire, Harvard, Stony Brook University, Furman University, and the University of Florida. Not only do students learn about and participate in agricultural practices, but some of these colleges, such as Furman, incorporate the food into campus dining halls, thereby allowing students to experience the beauty of eating locally grown, organic food. Additionally, professors use these gardens as a research sites. According to the Furman’s organic garden mission statement, “People are hungry for not just for fresh, healthy and fair food, but for knowledge and experience of participating in solutions.”

Students and faculty at our University hunger for this knowledge, experience, and available organic food as well. In the fall of 2008, several students established the UA Organic Community Garden Initiative to establish such a garden on campus with the desire to bring more local food into the dining halls and educate students about organic agriculture. Though they obtained support from multiple campus facets and even obtained funding for a water connection, the University denied the project because of aesthetic and managerial concerns. Yet, hope and passion for the initiative remained. Students subsequently started an on-campus garden at the University’s arboretum as a pilot project and compromise. Having been very involved in this effort for the past year, I have witnessed over fifty students work in the garden and discover the inherent joy that resides in harvesting food that one has planted and nurtured. I have also seen how this experiential learning inspires and engages students. Moreover, I have realized within this last semester that this setup can only be a temporary solution to a dire campus need and am forced to ask: If other Universities have successfully established gardens on their campuses, gardens that provide food for the campus, educational spaces, and academic opportunities, why can’t we overcome our issues and take advantage of such a valuable and easy endeavor?

This past fall I performed an independent study on organic gardening to fulfill a New College requirement. While I had had experience working on the garden, I did not fully comprehend the implications of the initiative until I started applying classroom concepts to our actions at the student garden. One of these concepts is soil health. As all farmers and gardeners know, soil health is necessary for abundant crop production. However, what many do not recognize is that creating and maintaining a good soil is a holistic process, one that considers how texture, structure, richness of certain nutrients, and presence of beneficial microorganisms collectively influence the soil. When fertilizers and pesticides are applied, two practices that are popular in industrial agriculture, they oftentimes kill the beneficial microorganisms that decompose organic material into the nutrients that feed plants, and the subsequent deficiency of these microorganisms can last for years in affected soils. This is why organic and holistically-minded methods such as crop rotation are much better solutions for agricultural problems. Rather than trying to identify and fix a single issue, their consequences acknowledge the natural balances that are crucial to food production and provide long-term solutions. According to author Wendell Berry, “A good solution improves the balances, symmetries, or harmonies within a pattern –it is a qualitative solution – rather than enlarging or complicating some part of a pattern at the expense or in neglect of the rest.” (272). Hence, we need to have a garden on campus so that students can apply these solutions, witness the results, and understand the value of approaching any issue from a holistic perspective.

Another reason that the University needs to allow the garden to greet campus soil is because of the arboretum’s distance campus. While only fifteen minutes away, having one or two students drive out there daily to perform necessary maintenance is unsustainable, and biking to the arboretum is practically infeasible–especially on days when students must return to campus and go to class. Many students voiced concern this semester about not having the time to travel to and from the arboretum as a reason for not fully committing to the project. Having the garden at the arboretum also creates difficulties for newcomers, who are usually unfamiliar with the arboretum and do not feel comfortable with going out there alone. If the University is genuinely passionate about using the garden as a teaching tool and educating the most students possible about agricultural issues, it will have to move the garden on campus.

When I started working on the garden initiative, I knew little about industrial agriculture and organic farming, and my main concern was creating another beautiful place of leisure on campus. I continue to believe that having an on-campus garden will make great aesthetic and social contributions to the University. But my work on the student garden and my classroom learning have taught me priceless lessons about agricultural practices, such as how the implementation of organic methods is crucial to the health of our environment and the survival of our species. Our University is currently behind in becoming a true environmental steward. This can and will change, though, when we fully recognize the benefits of projects like an on-campus garden and commit our time, energy, and resources in order to realize such initiatives. And if we are as concerned about being leaders of change and social responsibility as we advertise, then we must turn our promises into actions.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Thoughts for the Spring

Students visited the garden today to wrap up their project for the semester. Since every crop is ready for harvesting except for the brocolli, they uprooted some of the dead plants (sunflowers, winter squash, and pumpkins) and took them to the compost pile nearby. They also added onto the rabbit fence and began discussing how to redesign the beds for next semester. The new plan will not only consider how to make garden upkeep easier but will help improve the soil, since students have decided to turn the beds. Because it is too late to plant a cover crop in all of the current beds, compost will be placed on the tops of each and straw will cover the compost so that it will be less vulnerable to erosion.

Now that we're entering an "off season", what can you be doing to prepare for the next growing season? Start a compost pile! Compost is essential to organic gardening because it adds nutrients to the soil, creates better tilth, and feeds the microorganisms that are essential to plant survival. Here are some instructions for starting your own pile:

1. Think Carbon and Nitrogen. You want a pile that includes natural sources of both. Green garden debris contains high amounts of Nitrogen and brown Carbon.

2. You are looking for the best balance of both elements. Many argue what that balance is and how to achieve it. When looking for the "best" recipe, consider how much time you have before you'll need to be using your compost.

3. Toss in some soil or compost to help jumpstart your pile.

4. Moniture moisture levels. You don't want your pile to be too wet or too dry. It should be damp , but when you squeeze it, water should not drip out. If it's too dry, add water to help achieve this dampness.

5. Turn your pile in order to move material from the outside in and vice versa. If the temperature of the middle of the pile reaches 160 F, you need to turn your pile. Once the pile stops heating up after turning, you'll be done!

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

With the semester winding down and students eager to go home for the break, Students for Sustainability is discussing what it will do with the garden for the next several months. Currently, one of our officers is studying crop rotation and trying to identify what would be best to plant in the spring. Crop rotation basically means figuring out what to plant in which beds based on what plant came before it, since plant families have different influences on the soil. For example, some crops take up large amounts of Nitrogen from the soil during their life cycles. Instead of using synthetic chemical Nitrogen (found in fertilizers), which can be hazardous to soil structure and not even necessarily be in a form for plant uptake, the gardener should plant something that naturally puts Nitrogen back into the soil in a form that other plant can easily uptake -this specific process is known as Nitrogen fixation, and legumes are the plant family that perform it. Taking advantage of this natural process not only naturally restores vital nutrients to the soil, but helps create better tilth -which is more resistant to soil erosion, fights off plant disease cycles, and keeps pest problems at bay.

Students are also considering planting a live mulch for the spring and summer garden. As mentioned in a previous blog, mulch is laid down in between crops and rows to suppress weeds, prevent soil erosion, retain moisture, and maintain temperature. While some typical mulches are plastic, newspaper, straw, and grass clippings, living mulch is a plant that is interspersed between crops. Crimson clover is one example of a living mulch and can be used with a crop like corn, since corn is taller than the mulch. Advantages of living mulches include those of regular mulches, but they can also encourage beneficial insects to live near the crops and deter soil splashing, which occurs when rain hits the soil and causes it to splash on the plant. If the soil is carrying a disease, the splashing is very dangerous to the plant's vitality.

Nature provides us with the tools to build and maintain a healthy garden that can last for years if we do our research and understand plant/ soil relationships holistically. Trying to develop synthetic methods for gardening ignores these relationships and assumes that reducing a garden to individual problems will give achive the "ultimate" goal: large crop production. However, providing solutions to for one problem does not recognize how that solution will affect this large and clearly very intricate natural system, and though one season of fertilizing may bring big yields, the gardener will have more problems to deal with in the future and find his goal much more difficult (and expensive) to achieve. When we choose to use organic methods, we are not only taking advantage of what the Earth has provided us, but we are investing in future years of fertile, rich soil, good tilth, abundant biodiversity, and ultimately, healthy crops.