Fairfield's campus garden serving as an outdoor classroom



The harvest is in and the bees are buzzing at Fairfield University's campus garden.

Image: Campus gardenPart outdoor classroom, part production garden, the year-old, 3,000 square foot garden is the work of students, faculty, staff and administrators. A project whose origins can be traced to the university's Campus Sustainability Committee, the garden remains robust despite hungry caterpillars and stretches of dry, hot weather. Located just to the east of the Dolan School of Business, it boasts carrots, tomatoes, squash, zucchini, kale, garlic, shallots, green beans, sweet and hot peppers, and numerous herbs, from basil to rosemary.

A laboratory for students, the garden is serving as a resource for core science courses, including "Environmental Science" and "The Biology of Food." "We will do experiments growing plants in the garden," said Tod Osier, Ph.D., associate professor of biology, who oversees the garden with Jen Klug, Ph.D., associate professor of biology. "That approach works out well, since the students can learn about designing and conducting experiments - a goal of core science courses. They can grow edible plants there, which is great for a class on food."

The garden is also providing teachable moments in soil nutrients, composting and successful farming. Another hard lesson for students to learn there has involved insect pests. "Students working in the garden get a really good sense of the challenges of pest control in agriculture when the plants they have been working so hard to grow get eaten by insects," said Dr. Klug.

Image: Campus gardenEven before ground was broken, the garden was teaching students. Dr. Osier assigned undergraduates to come up with the optimal ratio of soil to compost for the garden's 18 raised beds. Designing an experiment, collecting data and writing papers along the way, students grew red leaf lettuce while testing various campus soil/compost mixtures in a Bannow Science Center lab. "Students loved it," Osier recalled. "We all had our pet lettuces but being that they were in a research lab, we couldn't eat them. It was a good way to help students understand the complexities of soil and how it impacts growing food."

For recent Fairfield graduate Dana August, a biology major with a marine science concentration, the garden was a place to undertake her senior capstone project. Through much trial and some error, the California native got a grasp of how much one can completely influence a garden's production. "I learned how easy it is to incorporate this aspect of sustainability in my life," said August, an environmentalist whose idea it was to start the garden. "Now that I'm living on my own, I'm excited to start planting a few late-summer crops - something I never would have dreamed of attempting a year earlier."

This is just what faculty want to hear. Setting out, they hoped a byproduct of establishing a campus garden would be nurturing a love for gardening in students.

Jesus Nunez, a sophomore majoring in nursing and minoring in communication, is one such undergraduate. "Going into this internship, I knew very little about gardening," said Nunez, the summer garden intern. "After two months of having this sort of immersion experience, I learned so much more about how our food is made and what kind of practices are better not only for the environment, but the produce as well."

Image: Bee hive at campus gardenAmong the lessons the Austin, Texas native learned is that gardens desperately need bees. Toward that end, he built Mason Bee Houses, redwood birdhouse-size nesting sites that are attracting this type of non-social but very helpful bee. Although they don't produce honey, Mason Bees are good for pollination. "Some will say they are even better than honey bees," said Nunez, munching on fresh kale. "It's vital that there is pollination for the garden because if flowers aren't pollinated, the plants won't produce fruit. We're growing lots of chilies and tomatoes this year, so this was extra important."

School of Engineering students are also pitching in, so to speak. Students in a web design course are building a web site about the garden using HTML and various web technologies. Dr. Wook-Sung Yoo, associate professor of software engineering, observed, "In a real world project like this, students not only build technical skills but also learn professionalism, the meaning of a quality product, the importance of communication, time management, commitment, team work, and leadership skills."

Even for students not planting and weeding, there is an opportunity to embrace a lesson about eating locally. That's because the garden's bounty is being used by Dining Services as ingredients in an array of meals. "Any items that come from the garden will be clearly marked on menus so the students can appreciate that they are eating local fare," said Rebecca Shaw, Sodexo Vendor at Fairfield.

Join faculty, staff and students every Monday at noon during the next month for lunch in the garden. Bring your lunch, see what is happening in the garden and enjoy the company of others. Shade and picnic tables provided. To get involved, contact Dr. Klug at (203) 254-4000, ext. 2543 or jklug@fairfield.edu

Images: "Since we pulled the garlic from the ground, they have been tied up and are hanging outside of a maintenance building," said Jesus Nunez, a sophomore nursing major with Dr. Tod Osier, standing, and Dr. Jen Klug. "They are hung to dry for a couple of weeks so that they don't rot, then they'll be stored by the cafeteria." Also pictured is a Mason Bee House that helps with pollination.

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Media Contact: Meg McCaffrey, (203) 254-4000, ext. 2726, mmccaffrey@fairfield.edu

Posted on August 15, 2011

Vol. 44, No. 18