Blog : Guest Blog: UMass Amherst Permaculture Garden
By: Josefine Nowitz
Is 50 miles local? Is 500 miles local? How about 15 feet? For all the debate about what is local, the University of Massachusetts Amherst is redefining the term with the implementation of a student-led sustainable permaculture garden. It is the first of its kind on a public university campus that will provide food directly to the campus dining services.
Located on a ¼ acre adjacent to Franklin Dining Hall, the garden is expected to produce 1,000 pounds of vegetables annually. The university has already taken bold steps to increase its procurement of local foods and vegetables and the garden will be an excellent complement to the school’s policy of using local produce, currently 25 percent of all food, for meals served in campus dining halls.
Permaculture is a merger of the words permanent and agriculture and was created to help solve the environmental issues associated with modern agriculture. Its approach is simple: to restore ecosystem health by mimicking natural processes. Permaculture gardens are ecologically designed, require minimal maintenance and provide an abundance of food and resources.
The University of Massachusetts Amherst, in its commitment to sustainability, adopted these permaculture strategies to provide food and education for the campus community. The initial idea for the permaculture garden started as a student-led idea in a Sustainable Agriculture class, led by professor John Gerber in the spring of 2009. The group of students approached Ken Toong, the Executive Director of Auxiliary Enterprises at UMASS, who believed it would be a beneficial addition to the already existing sustainable efforts on campus.
In Fall 2010 after receiving the final go-ahead from the university, a Permaculture Planning Committee was created. This student committee, under the leadership of Ryan Harb, a graduate of the University of Massachusetts and current Sustainability Specialist for Auxiliary Enterprises, began laying the foundation steps for the garden.
Eager to spread the word about their idea and gain support for their venture, the committee began by developing a Facebook page and Wordpress blog to get the word out and encourage student involvement. When planning the phases of the garden, the Permaculture Planning Committee searched for a way to create a closed-loop system to gather the raw materials needed for the garden directly from other sources on campus, and found solutions in the campus community. The compost came from the university equestrian farm. The cardboard, from campus dumpsters. The newspapers, from recycling.
On Friday, October 22, 2010 the committee, with the help of other student volunteers who had heard about the project and were interested in it, embarked on the arduous mission to transform the otherwise unproductive grass lot in from of Franklin Dining Commons, into a highly productive, aesthetically pleasing, educational, sustainable garden.
Their goals were ambitious: to move over 250,000 pounds of organic matter, by hand, using no fossil fuels, in less than two months time. While daunting, with the help of over 150 volunteers from the campus and surrounding areas, with sheet-mulching phase of the garden was completed in under six weeks.
This spring, phases two and three of the garden will commence with a design charette, which will encourage collaboration among students, faculty, administration, and outside community members. The charette will take place inside Franklin Dining Commons overlooking the garden and will bring together diverse perspectives from all individuals present to continue the transformation of the ¼ acre lot into a model campus permaculture garden. The actual planting will commence once the New England winter dies down, and until then the UMass Permaculture Planning Committee is working on other projects such as developing proposals and articles for media outreach, to add to the headlines the garden made during its first phase.
The garden is expected to have many short and long term benefits, ranging from serving as an educational site about sustainable efforts right on campus, to eventually creating jobs and a surplus of food for the campus community. Harb said: “What University of Massachusetts Amherst is trying to do, besides grow food for the campus community, is to raise awareness about what’s involved in permaculture and educate others about really healthy ways of growing food.”
For the University of Massachusetts Amherst campus, the permaculture garden serves as a reminder of what one big idea, a lot of recycled newspaper and cardboard, and a supportive community can accomplish in an ongoing effort to make our Earth a more sustainable, and tastier, place to live.