Take a stroll across the upper plaza of the Morningside Campus near Pupin and Uris Halls, and you’ll find what could well be called Columbia’s field of dreams.
It’s the Community Garden , two plots occupying about 1000 square feet, burgeoning with herbs, vegetables, berry bushes, flowers and the enthusiasm of student gardeners.
Becky Davies, CC ’10, is the primary dreamer and the initiator of the garden, planned and cultivated under the auspices of the Columbia University Food Sustainability Project. Davies describes the group as “dormant for a couple of years” before she took up its leadership this past spring.
She says she first rounded up some interested people – largely first-year students, and “we decided we wanted to do a garden.” Initial help came from Facilities, including the land, tools, water, bricks and expertise.
Matthew Early, Assistant Vice President, Facilities Operations, recalls receiving an e-mail from Davies, asking to talk about her idea. Early and Davies met, agreed on a location for the garden, and Davies submitted a project proposal written by Sustainability Project members.
“My guys prepared the plot, took out bushes, and took soil samples,” Early says. “And we asked Becky to write up an agreement that the garden had to be taken care of over the summer or the land would be taken back.”
Meantime, funding for the plant starts and seeds came from EarthCo, the Columbia/Barnard student sustainability action group; CoreFoods, a non-profit student-run organic food coop at JJ’s Place; and Students for Environmental and Economic Justice (SEEJ).
Late spring and early summer planting produced radishes, lots of herbs and lettuce, and what Davies describes as “beautiful bunching onions that are so strong I can hardly use up a whole one within a week.” Lots of yellow and red tomatoes and a variety of peppers are now ready for picking.
The Community Garden hasn’t escaped a pest invasion. Aphids and ants have attacked the artichoke plants, giving the volunteers a research project on non-toxic ways to combat the insects. Davies says they’ve tried a tomato leaf and water concoction for the aphids and a spice/pepper mixture for the ants, but are still experimenting with organic pest control methods.
Volunteer gardeners – about 35 – get to take the produce, though Davies says they hope by fall to have enough to be able to sell it to students and faculty, with proceeds going back into the project.
One recent morning, Billy John Lockhart finished his Wednesday watering commitment, and was hard at work weeding, mulching and composting celery and squash. Lockhart, who’s in Columbia ’s post-baccalaureate pre-med program, says he noticed the garden one day as he was heading to a physics class at Pupin and signed up as a volunteer.
Lockhart graduated from the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University in 2002, then joined the Peace Corps in West Africa . There, he says he became involved with urban gardening – one of the reasons he’s particularly enthusiastic about the possibilities on the Columbia campus.
Lockhart is impressed by the volunteers’ shared ownership of garden responsibilities and their vision. “It allows momentum to build in our group,” he says, and Davies’ leadership “lets the volunteers capitalize on their own interests.”
“I do the coordination,” Davies says, which comes out to about 12 hours a week, lots of that time organizing volunteers and weeding. She says it’s more work than she anticipated. “Sometimes there’s a disconnect between enthusiasm for the project and what people will actually do.” Occasionally volunteers are timid about the work, she says, in large measure because they don’t know a veggie plant from a weed. Yet she’s quick to point out that the garden wouldn’t exist without the efforts of volunteers.
Alison Powell, Barnard ’09, volunteers twice a week and is “in charge” on Saturdays. That means she waters, weeds, plants, and gets work groups together. Powell says she’s a lifetime gardener who’s “thrilled to use her green thumb in New York .”
Sunday mornings are Liz Allocco’s favorite times in the garden. “It’s nice to go out before it’s too hot and pull weeds. It’s therapeutic to pull things that shouldn’t be there in order to see things that should,” says Allocco, Columbia ’11.
Allocco also promotes the Community Garden ’s educational value. “It’s not going to produce enough food to feed Columbia University ,” she says. “But what we do have is pretty impressive – a lot of it is getting people to walk by and see that because we’re in New York City with a lot of concrete, it’s not impossible to grow and eat locally.”
Matthew Early says that Davies’ request to plant the Community Garden “was so simple for us, something very easy.” The Food Sustainability group was understanding and easy to work with, he says, and “I hope the garden is successful.”
Note: If you’d like to learn more about the Food Sustainability Project, their programs and projects, AND the dates/times to volunteer at the Community Garden , check out gosustainable.blogspot.com.