Students Get Hands Dirty with Organic Gardening Class

Pioneer Garden, one of two gardens that make up the U of U Edible Campus Gardens.

Pioneer Garden, one of two gardens that make up the U of U Edible Campus Gardens.

By Alicia Wrigley-Gailey, Sustainability Resource Center

Summer semester is less than a week away, and eco-minded students once again have the opportunity to get a solid foundation in sustainable agriculture by taking Environmental & Sustainability Studies’ summer organic gardening course.

For a portion of the Monday and Wednesday evening classes that run through the end of July, students in the class will get outdoor, hands-on experience. They will be able to learn beginning gardening techniques and apply those by planting and tending to plots in that class’s lab space, the Edible Campus Gardens.

The other portion of the three-credit hour course teaches students the scientific reasons why these techniques work. The instructor of the course, Susan Findlayson of Wasatch Community Gardens, has an educational background in horticulture and agronomy from UC Davis. She will help students understand the science behind soil chemistry, nutrient cycling, energy transfer, and more.

Jen Colby, the Sustainability Resource Center’s manager of the Edible Campus Gardens, says it’s this science component of the course that makes it unique and beneficial.

“The best gardening really starts from the soil, and soil biology and chemistry are super interesting, but also super complicated. New gardeners tend to want to go straight to the fun part of putting seeds and plants in the ground, but preparing the ground and understanding how soil works can really be beneficial over time. Students [in the organic gardening class] often don’t realize how much soil science they’ll be learning, but it really gives them a much stronger framework,” Colby says.

Students plant seeds at the Sill Center garden.

Students plant seeds at the Sill Center garden.

The scientific nature of the course is no surprise, considering its genesis. The first iteration of the organic gardening class at the U was taught in the biology department by gardening expert and emeritus professor Fred Montague. After Montague’s retirement, class numbers dwindled until it was re-vamped and adopted into the Environmental and Sustainability Studies program’s curriculum. Jenn Watt, assistant director of the Environmental and Sustainability Studies, says that the course fills an important role for students in her department.

“There’s a big movement around organic gardening and sustainable agriculture in Salt Lake City, and a lot of students are interested in it. The organic gardening course is one of the only classes they can take here [at the U] in that area. It’s really great to have that available on campus because, if we can get more college students interested in it, they’ll continue on and eventually teach their kids, too,” Watt says.

Watt and Colby both note that the course can also teach students about more than just gardening.

“Students in the class have a really deep sense of responsibility and learn to work together, which is increasingly hard for people to find today because it’s getting easier and easier to disconnect. Gardening connects people to each other and to responsibility,” Colby says.

Watt agrees. “The class teaches students to be realistic about what will be expected of them once they finish college. With the gardening class, you plant the seeds and if you don’t do a good job, the plants die. It’s a very visual representation of responsibility, and it helps build a community that works together to take care of the garden,” she says.

The community that is built in the organic gardening class doesn’t just benefit the students; it’s an important factor that keeps the Edible Campus Gardens themselves going.

“Having the gardens on campus is a nice amenity aesthetically and for visitors, but since we are student focused, the gardens must be academically tied for them to persist and be of real value,” Colby says. “This grounding in academics brings a very different lens to the work we do a the gardens.”

In addition, previous and current students from the organic gardening class perform much of the day-to-day running of the gardens.

Students prep the soil at the Pioneer Garden.

Students prep the soil at the Pioneer Garden.

“We’ve fought very hard to keep these gardens on campus, and it’s important for students to understand their role in keeping them around. The way we maintain and manage these gardens is through volunteers that come from the gardening class. After the class is done, students have invested so much that many volunteer through the following fall with the harvest and beyond. The next year, the new incoming gardening class members see those previous students. It’s really important that we have students interested in the class to keep the gardens running,” Watt says.

So what if the class sounds interesting but you’re not available this summer? Well, stick around for exciting developments in the coming years. This past semester, Watt submitted the course outline to be approved as a general education course. She is hopeful that by next year, the organic gardening course will fulfill the applied science bachelor’s degree requirement.

In addition, Watt is working to expand Environmental and Sustainability Studies’ offerings of courses about sustainable agriculture.

“I would like in the next five years to have several upper division courses that continue on after the organic gardening class and take on some other specific components so a student could complete a series of classes and leave here with a really solid foundation in sustainable agriculture.” Watt says. “There are a lot of organizations around the country that hire people with that kind of expertise. I think that’s something we could offer, and it’s also fundamentally important for students to have that option.”

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