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“Pioneering” Tradition Lives on in Campus Organic Gardens

Ashley Cooper harvesting Lolla Rosa lettuce.

–by Alexandra Parvaz, Office of Sustainability Graduate Internal and U of U Farmers Market Manager

Early spring 2010 harvest featuring cool weather crops at the Pioneer garden east of Pioneer Theater.

Sustainable food production at the University of Utah may seem a fairly recent phenomenon. However, for nearly a decade, our campus has been graced with two organic gardens—the Sill and Pioneer.  The gardens not only produce nutritious food, but are used as living laboratories for teaching students the skills and benefits of organic gardening methods.

Dr. Fred Montague, a now-retired wildlife biologist with a passionate interest in ecological gardening as a means for fostering a more sustainable world, spearheaded and used the gardens for his Principles of Organic Gardening course, a service learning class offered during the summer semesters.

Ashley Cooper harvesting Lolla Rosa lettuce.

Through hands-on application of various organic gardening techniques, students learn the basics of how to feed themselves, about healthy nutrition and most importantly recognize the imperative for growing our food more sustainably and locally.

In addition to practicing composting, planting biodiverse gardens that offer their own natural pest resistances, soil and water conservation, and planting according to the seasonality of plant varieties, students are able to better put into context the severe environmental degradation, and social health dilemmas associated with the modern fossil fuel intensive, polluting industrial agriculture system.

Students also donate a portion of the food grown to food pantries such as Crossroads Urban Center, and are building gardens at various Title 1 elementary schools, all the while helping reinforce the ethical obligations we have as a community to enhance local food security in the urban environment, and sharing fresh food with those who need it most.

James Ruff, carrying on in Dr. Montague's tradition, prepares a bed for heirloom tomatoes.

With Montague’s recent retirement, the future of the gardens was at risk.  A group of Dr. Montague’s former students, the Office of Sustainability, and University staff and faculty devoted to preserving these nourishing teaching spaces have brainstormed various ways to ensure the gardens into perpetuity and to develop campus-wide awareness and ownership of all they have to offer.  These individuals have felt it integral that these gardens thrive and continue to provide perfect learning opportunities for students across campus. This summer, an alum of Fred’s courses—Biology Ph.D. candidate James Ruff—had the opportunity to teach the organic gardening course, continuing Fred’s legacy.

In this light, I have focused my master’s thesis in Environmental Science on assessing various strategies to protect and create blueprints for the expansion of these gardens as permanent educational landmarks on campus.

The focus of my study is primarily the Pioneer Garden, a 5-year-old garden located just east of the Pioneer Theatre.  One element focuses on enhancing garden productivity via a four-season harvest program to demonstrate the possibilities of growing food year round, rather than the confines of the summer.

Parvaz and Mark Morrison in the Heritage Commons Cafeteria with early-morning harvest of lettuce, spinach and arugula.

The second component focuses on ways to make the gardens financially sustainable through the sale of produce to Chartwells, the U’s food service provider and the University of Utah Farmers Market.  The final assessment explores ways to broaden interdepartmental support for the gardens as potential laboratories for teaching various disciplines outside of the Biology Department and providing an inspiring context to study the complexities of building more sustainable communities in an increasingly urbanized world.   Thus far, courses in the departments as diverse as Urban Planning, Architecture, Social Work and Education seek to integrate the gardens into their curricula beginning Fall 2010.

But this work cannot be achieved by a small group of people alone  If you have a green thumb or want to develop one, we invite you to come join us and help plant beets, peas, carrots, spinach and more!

Garden workdays occur at both gardens throughout the week.  At the Pioneer (between the Pioneer Theater and the Chemistry Building) work is scheduled on Monday and Friday mornings from 8am until noon, and Tuesday and Friday evenings from 4pm to 6pm.  At the Sill (east of the Union Building parking lot) work is scheduled on Tuesday and Thursday mornings from 8am until 11 am, and Wednesday evenings from 4pm until 6pm.   In addition, depending on the degree of interest, there will be Saturday sessions from 9am until noon.

Cameron McIntire working in front of hoop house, used to extend crop season in winter.

On Farmer’s Market Day—Thursdays anytime between 7:00am.-3:00pm—we welcome you to Tanner Plaza to help with set-up, selling campus produce, and basic booth operation.

For more information or to find out how you can further develop this effort please contact Alexandra Parvaz at;  or 734-223-6409.

  • off-the-grid

    This is awesome what you’re doing!

    Wondering if you’ve explored permaculture as a means for achieving sustainable food production?

    I’ve attempted to create a “forest garden” on my 1 acre lot. However, my own ignorance about planting trees and permaculture in general has proven a big setback. (15 of the 17 fruit and nut trees I bought didn’t survive).

  • daylilies

    I like to see a little color as well with gardening. I think daylilies is a perfect companion plant for the garden. In most cases the daylily has a higher resale value than a carrot or potato. The daylily flower is also edible and makes a wonderful salad garnishment.