Story by Ty Smith, Managing Editor
Photo courtesy of Anna Schlutt
The Aquinas College Community Garden, situated on the lawn between the Art and Music Center and Holmdene, is a familiar and welcoming sight to many Aquinas students. During the fall it’s a place to grab a tomato to eat before class or some basil and garlic to spice up dinner, and during the spring it’s a place to hang out and just be around the fledgling green plants. However, declining student and community engagement in the project has prompted the Center for Sustainability to discuss its future.
The garden was first established near the Browne Center, in a small two-by-two plot. Poor drainage quickly led students to abandon the site, and it was moved near the Fulton House in 2011. At that time, the site was a grass field. When the lot was paved over for more parking, the garden was moved to its current location at the AMC. That was when the problems began.
“When it was established in 2011 over near the Fulton House, we had a huge volunteer base,” said Jessica Bowen, director of the Center for Sustainability at Aquinas. “We had a lot of staff, faculty and students who were engaged in working in the garden, so they divided up the work and got it done themselves.”
When the garden was moved to the AMC, however, while interest remained high, volunteering dwindled. “Throughout the years, we’ve seen our volunteer numbers decline,” said Bowen. “The number of people interested in the garden, who like to talk about it and hear about it has increased, but the number of volunteers able to dig in the dirt and tend in the garden has declined.”
Bowen believes the reason for this may lie in when the garden is at its most fruitful; summer. “Here’s the challenge; the majority of the work has to happen in the summer, right? That’s when things are growing, that’s when things need to be watered, and that’s when we have most of our produce, in June or July,” Bowen said.
But June and July are when students and faculty are here the least, and so when the school opens again in August and September, most of the harvest and indeed most of the work is already done.
That isn’t the only issue leading to declining numbers of volunteers, Bowen believes. “There’s a bigger, overarching problem in how we engage in communication with students,” she said. At the moment there is no signage at the garden to tell students how to get involved with volunteering, and paper advertisements would be unsustainable. Right now, the only way to get involved with the garden is to either get on the Community Garden email list, or to follow the Center for Sustainability’s Facebook and Instagram pages, where they frequently post updates.
To help deal with declining volunteer numbers, the Center for Sustainability’s staff and interns pitched in to help pick up the slack. When it came to the point that they were doing most of the work, however, they enlisted the help of a college librarian. For a small stipend, she would do the work of keeping the garden up during the summer while the Center for Sustainability thought about the future of the garden.
This arrangement worked for the summers of 2017 and 2018, but as the librarian has decided she would no longer work in the garden, the Center for Sustainability’s decision on the future of the Community Garden is all the more ugent.
While the Center is making a decision, key figures at Aquinas have asked whether or not the garden gives any value to the college. “Realistically, if people aren’t engaging in the garden and it doesn’t have perceived value, it costs money to run the garden,” Bowen said. “It’s hard to measure the value that a community garden brings. I don’t think the garden is going to go away, but we need to make some changes to how it’s done so we can better engage volunteers and students.”
The Center for Sustainability has sent out a questionnaire to students, staff and faculty in order to help them make a decision on the garden’s future. The survey asks students about a variety of topics, including whether they use the garden, whether the garden brings value to Aquinas, and whether they would like to volunteer for the garden.
“The survey isn’t closed, we’ve had 150 responses so far,” Bowen said. The responses have been a mixture of faculty, staff and students. “I can’t say officially what the survey says yet, because it hasn’t finished yet, but I’ve been scanning through the responses so far, and it’s matching what my hunch is, which is most people love the garden. Most of them feel it brings value to Aquinas, but most of them don’t want to volunteer.”
The survey closes on Monday, April 22. Bowen hopes it will help the Center learn more about what students and faculty would like to see in the Community Garden.
“We want ideas, we seriously want and need ideas from the students especially about ways they might want to interact with the garden,” Bowen said. “Do you want to tend the garden? Do you want some education on plants, or to be taught how to garden?” The survey includes a spot where students and faculty can make any other comments on the garden, whether that be ideas for its future or reasons they don’t volunteer in the present.
“At the end of the day, we need to figure out ways to allow people to engage more with the garden, and we need people to take us up on those opportunities,” Bowen said. For now, it’s up to the faculty, staff and students of Aquinas to come together and decide; what do we want our garden to be in the future?
If you’d like to get on the email list for the Aquinas Community Garden, which includes updates and volunteering opportunities, you can contact Jessica Bowen at email@example.com.