Blessing marks organic gardening expansion

Blessing organic gardening

Edmundite Father Mike Cronogue gives a blessing to the new organic garden site on Oct. 6.

A Blessing Ceremony for a new Saint Michael's College organic garden site coincided with students from Professor Bridget Kerr's First-Year Seminar called "Gardens and Greenings" planting the "first seeds" into the soil right after the afternoon blessing.

The linchpin of the this recent activity is a vastly (eight times) larger organic garden or "permaculture site" being developed down the bank back behind the president's residence and observatory – a site where the college's founding order, the Society of Saint Edmund, used to grow vegetables for local food shelves back in the 1980s. Plans call not only for garden vegetables, but also perennials, a greenhouse and possibly fruit and nut trees.

A campus program titled "What's Going on with the Organic Garden?" on September 25 was a chance for the entire community to learn about the expanding organic gardening operations at Saint Michael's College, with opportunities to be involved as gardeners, educators, learners, community servants and activists.

Sustainability Coordinator Heather Ellis-Lynch, the chief gardener, invited Edmundite Father Michael Cronogue to give the blessing. He remembers working decades ago at the previous Edmundite garden at the site, overseen by the late Rev. John Stankiewicz SSE '37. Also present to help celebrate the occasion were President Jack Neuhauser, Vice President for Academic Affairs Karen Talentino, Vice President for Human Resources Michael New, Director of Facilities Dave Cutler, Associate Director for Architectural and Design Services James Farrington, retired longtime Marketing and Public Relations Director Buff Lindau and others.

The new site will be eight times the size of the old garden that was launched in spring of 2008 down the road by the jug handle near Merrill Cemetery not far from the college's east entrance. That site will continue to be cultivated even once the new site is fully up and running, says Ellis-Lynch, who's in charge of both gardens.

The initiative comes as sustainable food systems are becoming an increasingly large part of the Vermont economy, according Ellis-Lynch. The Farm to Plate (F2P) Initiative, approved at the end of the 2009 Vermont legislative session, directed the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund, in consultation with the Sustainable Agriculture Council and other stakeholders, to develop a 10-year strategic plan to strengthen Vermont's food system. These recent initiatives help Saint Michael's be a more integral part of these efforts.

Hank Strashnick, manager of the college's Sodexo food service, is enthusiastic about buying and using whatever the gardens produce, Ellis-Lynch said, though in keeping with the college's and the Edmundites' mission, a significant amount will be set aside for food shelves and low-income families who otherwise might not have access to such healthy, fresh food.

organic farm sowingSince this summer, the process has begun to move the bulk of gardening activities from the old site to the new so-called "permaculture site," which will be developed by the community over the next few years. The concept of "permaculture" holistically takes into account the culture and contours of the land along with all the organisms and wildlife and humans that interact there, Ellis-Lynch explained, saying, "it's viewing the land as a whole system -- how do you work with what's already there in a cohesive manner?"

Joan Wagner, director of community-engaged learning and coordinator of experiential learning, said, "This is an incredible moment of being involved in the formation stage of the garden on two fronts that can be valuable: First, it's great hands-on learning that people can fit into their classes, and second, it provides great opportunities for students who want to pursue something like this in a career and can have an idea of what it's like to get a garden going. Other communities already have established gardens and students can come in and contribute to that, but how many places have a chance for students to be involved in the creation state? That's the exciting part of where we're at with this."

The first-year seminar called "Gardens and Greening," taught by Bridget Kerr, has been involved in developing the new garden site, said Wagner, who was co-leader of the Sept. 25 Farrell Room program.

"It's going to be a two to five year process until the new site is really up and running full force," Ellis-Lynch said. "It takes a lot of time at the new site to work with soil, get it built up so it can grow all the things we're going to ask it to grow for us. It won't be happening overnight. But since we have this unique opportunity to design and construct a new site, every step of the way is a chance for students, faculty and staff to be in the process and learn."

Half of the new garden space will be for annual vegetable production like the current garden, she said – "planting rows with crop rotation," but another part of the project will be raised beds for vegetables that "can be used for experiments by students and faculty to test out different growing techniques." The site also will have a three-season greenhouse for vegetable production, scheduled to go in next summer.

"The other half of it is going to be a perennials-growing area which will include fruit trees, and will include strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, and we're looking at growing grapes as well, and we might look at some nut trees like hazelnuts to incorporate into our system," she said.

"It's eight times the size of the current garden, so it's going to be massively increasing production," Ellis Lynch said. "It all goes back to the heart of what that garden used to be when the Edmundites in the 1980s grew vegetables and produce for families in need for the food shelf, so we want to bring that back."

The college has two brand new courses in its curriculum based on the new garden site – a permaculture course that ran two weeks this past summer, but also is slated to be full course in the spring semester as a collaboration between Anjanette DeCarlo, visiting professor of environmental studies, and adjunct Keith Morris, a permaculturist with Prospect Rock Permaculture in Jeffersonville who also teaches courses on the topic at other Vermont colleges. "This summer they were learning about what permaculture is as part of the connection to the new site, and developing initial plans for designing it," she said, adding that some of the best of those student plans will be implemented, at least in part, she said.

Part of the summer's work also was installing an irrigation system to provide running water at the garden site, which the old site did not have, with the installer of the system being the son of the man who put in an irrigation system for the Edmundites in the 1980s.

organic farm raking

"In late September we worked on mowing down and harrowing all the weeds and grass, before tilling in order to prepare for the later planting of a cover crop with the first-year seminar, something like winter rice to protect the soil from freeze-burn and add organic matter," Ellis-Lynch said. "Next summer is when we'll get the rest of the infrastructure in place, and pending funding, we might start putting in fruit trees and perennials as well. One thing we're trying to drive home in is that it's not going to happen overnight – it's going to take several years for that soil to produce what it's capable of doing, so we want to take it slow and steady to do it the right way because we only have one opportunity to set the foundation."

The main purpose of the Sept. 25 session was "to see what the community wants and how we can make that happen and see what all the needs out there are and how can we incorporate them into the program going forward," she said, adding that "a sampling of delicious garden snacks and produce will be on display to appreciate, eat right away or take home with you!" The session is co-sponsored by the Offices of Sustainability and Community-Engaged Learning.

"I personally want lots of curriculum engagement with hands-on experience," she said, "but also a place to bring people together who otherwise might not come together. One of my favorite parts of the current garden is building friendships and bonds by food. The garden move poses incredible opportunities for faculty and students to be involved at the formation stage."

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