September 2, 2009
Behind Knollcrest East Apartments, situated just where the land begins to slope downwards, are several rows of raised garden beds. The beds, 18 of them, are enclosed by eight-by-four-foot frames, and the whole is enclosed by a deer-proof fence. Toward the end of August, the beds were filled with ripening tomatoes, peppers, beans and a profusion of other vegetables.
"It’s kind of been a collaboration, wherever there’s money, wherever there’s people to move it forward,” said junior Emma Slager, the manager of this, Calvin’s first community garden.
Long in cultivation
It was the inaugural summer for Calvin’s community garden, a project that has been long in the cultivation. "There have been campaigns for this type of things for years,” said Slager. Earlier this year, leaders of the Environmental Stewardship Coalition wrote a proposal for a garden where students, faculty and staff could raise vegetables together, and the project won approval from the Calvin administration.
In late April, as a part of the Mad Farmer Food Festival—itself a part of Calvin’s Earth Week celebration—volunteers busted sod for the garden. Physical plant workers built boxes for the raised garden beds and blanketed them in wood chips. Soil for the boxes—improved by compost from the physical plant compost pile— came from various campus construction projects.
"Our campus is a former farm,” said Slager. “If we had imported soil, I think that would have been a sad thing.”
Once the garden infrastructure was in place, the beds were made available to volunteer gardeners from all corners of the Calvin community: seminary faculty, students who rent housing, alumni and others. Ten of the beds went to individuals to tend, and eight were community beds, husbanded by groups.
Slager remains impressed with one particular group of gardeners: “There were some students who were here earlier in the summer, who were taking first session summer classes, and they left before we even harvested our radishes—our first crop,” she said. “And they came to all of our events, and they worked really hard, even though they knew they were never going to eat what we were growing ... And I think that’s just so life-affirming, that people were willing to work for something they would never harvest.”
Helped by advice from Calvin biology professor David Dornbos, Slager and crew coped with the sorts of diseases that pester plants. “We had some problems with fungus. We didn’t have blight. That stayed to the east of us,” she said. “We had Septoria Leaf Spot on the tomatoes. We had some Downy Mildew on the squash. Any garden has problems like that. And it hasn’t been bad.”
The community gardeners also coped with pestilence “We did have some insect problems, but it doesn’t take long for the caterpillars find the cabbages and for the birds to find the caterpillars,” Slager said.
All was not paradisiacal, however. The deer-proof fence was not impervious to the bunnies that chewed through the plastic, and mistakes were made with regard to things like watering and pesticides. “We tried an aphid spray that was recommended by the USDA. We sprayed them in the afternoon, and the leaves were just fried,” Slager confessed.
The vegetable beds prospered nevertheless. “We had a volunteer event yesterday, and people took home what they wanted, and we had a crate of tomatoes left over,” she said. Surplus produce goes to the Saturday Food Program at Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church. “It’s sort of like a weekly food bank where they have fresh food,” Slager said.
Her responsibilities as the only paid cultivator of the community garden included coordinating supplies, managing the community beds and distributing the produce. Though she learned gardening from working alongside her mother, the bulk of Slager’s expertise in the field was earned while working at Trillium Haven Farm (owned by Calvin alumni Michael VanderBrug and Anja Mast.) “I never knew how much knowledge I had until I had a chance to share it. It’s been very, very fulfilling for me,” she said, adding, “I don’t think there’s a vegetable in the world that I don’t like.”
Dornbos feels that tending the garden is an educational experience: “The community garden has given students the practical, hands-on opportunity to help them to better understand where their food comes from and what it takes to produce food, and to learn about the myriad social and environmental issues that connect to food,” he said.
Now that the community garden has successfully come through one growing season, Slager hopes that it will not only endure but expand its borders. “The scale has been lovely … You can slow down and do what’s best for the plants. But it limits opportunities for volunteers. I would like it to grow.” Ideally, she said, the garden would expand someplace where there is a lot of foot traffic. “We can’t just spontaneously draw in people who are walking by because nobody walks by it…,” Slager said. “It would be nice if it were more centrally located.”
All issues of garden location and expansion now belong to Johnathan Loritsch, Slager’s successor as community garden manager. Loritsch is looking forward to a year of agriculture: “It's important for young people like us to have an outlet like this because it is so relevant to us as humans on this earth,” he said. “I see the Calvin community garden as a place to celebrate God's creation in a very simple way, and the sharing and learning among friends is enriching for everyone.”
Slager will be spending the fall ’09 semester in Hungary. She says she’s sorry to miss the final gathering in: “Carrots are coming in soon. We’ve had a few so far. And beets; I’m really sorry to be missing beets. We have tomatoes coming up. Now is a great time to be a gardener. Everything’s coming up.”
~by Myrna Anderson, communications and marketing