Recent Growth in the Sprout Garden – The College Voice – The Connecticut College Voice

recent-growth-in-the-sprout-garden-–-the-college-voice-–-the-connecticut-college-voice

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Photo courtesy of Jozette Moses.

Stretched behind Crozier-Williams is a half-acre sized plot of land that is not only a campus garden for the students, staff, and New London community, but a Friday farmer’s market, and a site for a sustainable agriculture curriculum. The seed of Sprout Garden was planted in 2004, but has recently been expanded under the instruction of Professor Eric Vukicevich and the help of fellow students. I spoke with Professor Vukicevich, and Sprout’s Community Engagement intern and Office of Sustainability Fellow Tess Beardell ‘23, to discuss the recent Sprout expansion. Here’s what they have to say.

I understand that Sprout Garden has expanded considerably in the past year. Can you elaborate on this? What growing/harvesting opportunities has this expansion afforded you?

Eric: The garden has indeed expanded!  There was a nice flat grassy area next to the original Sprout Garden and no-one was lawn bowling, so I started asking around and found that, in fact, people would be up for growing food there and students have wanted to expand the garden for some time. We started by killing the grass using silage tarps (a process called occultation), then seeded a cover crop before that first winter. In the spring of last year, we added a bunch (this is a highly technical agricultural term) of compost and were off to the races. None of this would have happened without some real hard work and dedication, and laughs, from an awesome student crew last summer. Emir Kulluk ‘21 and Bailor Jalloh ’23 came out early in the pandemic and kept on coming back (and still do!).  These guys helped dig bioswales, build pergolas, confronted nocturnal packs of onion-digging skunks and tomato worms the size of Snickers bars, and grew a ton of food. Actually I think it was closer to 2 or 3 tons in the end, not bad for a third of an acre! We were also lucky to be joined by Manny Yebowah ’22 and Melissa Alvarez-Lopez ’23, who came out to help farm several days a week, and Tess Beardell ’21, who kept us all on the right path from afar, managing our crop plan and community outreach. Having this larger growing space affords us some great opportunities to have a living laboratory for classes, grow enough food to do a 30+ member CSA program with our friends at FRESH New London, and be able to host summer interns and research projects. We have plans to add more features and are continuing to work on making Sprout an engaging and welcoming space where all members of our community can learn, taste, and be outside together.
Tess: What really triggered the change that I think people have noticed is getting the huge new space next to the raised beds. That was done very intentionally based on a partnership Eric had developed with FRESH New London to grow food that supplements their CSA program. We now have a club but we also have an academic space. And they’re very much merged. And are not totally separate in that people from either event can move through both spaces, but we definitely became more integrated within the academics.

In what ways has academics at Conn been engaging with Sprout garden?

Eric: I teach several courses that utilize Sprout for labs and class projects, including Ecological Agriculture (BOT 230) and Sustainable Agriculture seminar (BOT/ES 493M). Last fall, I piloted a new course called Community Agriculture (BOT 290), where students learn by doing while engaging with materials and discussions surrounding issues of sustainability and social justice in agricultural production. I am looking forward to tuning it up and offering it again next fall.  Other Botany professors also use the space for labs in classes like Environmental Plant Physiology (BOT 320), How Plants Feed the World (BOT 115), and others. It’s nice to be able to use the context of organic farming and gardening as a learning environment for the fascinating ecosystem that is the plant and soil world. I expect that as more classes are taught in person, other professors will start to utilize the space as well. I think this will especially be true for a lot of offerings in the Food Pathway and the Food Studies Anthropology Concentration, but why not have other classes out there? What has been cool to see is that some of these opportunities are drawing students from all over campus. I’ve worked with and taught students majoring in film studies, computer science, physics, music, anthropology, and others. 

How have you been engaged academically with Sprout, and how would you recommend the student body get involved in Sprout Garden?

Tess: The first time I was learning in Sprout was for a class with Professor Rachel Spicer  – How Plants Feed The World – and we had corn growing, so we did a lab on the rate of photosynthesis, and we were actually able to measure that ourselves. Last fall, someone did their Senior Capstone project in the garden. Sprout once did soil testing to determine soil texture, and I worked with Doug Thompson, who is in the Geology and Environmental Science departments. 
I do want to mention, these are science-based classes. But I think there is an opportunity for everyone to do something in Sprout. Because I think food – plants – is a really good way to make people feel welcome in a space, so I think the opportunity for classroom engagement in the space is up to any interpretation and however people want to pursue it. 

How has community engagement – i.e. working with FRESH New London or other CSA programs – been impacted by COVID? How has it caused you to change your community outreach goals?

Eric: Since this was our first year with this project, I guess we don’t have a “normal” to compare it to, but I am certainly hopeful we can get through this soon because it would allow us to do so much more of what we’re hoping to do as far as community engagement goes. When the pandemic hit, we had already committed to our 30+ member families, and due to the pressures the pandemic put on a lot of people, the weekly shares of fresh produce took on another level of importance. We were able to make it happen, like I said, thanks to those students and to a dedicated staff and core youth program at FRESH. We were not able to work together as much as we had hoped––co-learning being a major goal of this program––but we found ways to still make it meaningful and provide food to people who need it in a dignified way, for example, by engaging members with a weekly bilingual newsletter to keep up with our urban agriculture happenings (thanks Tess and Melissa). So community partnership goals haven’t actually changed that much, other than we have been pretty serious about delivering quality produce each week and having enough to go around and our day-to-day looks a bit different than it would otherwise. 

What are some plans for the future of Sprout? (This can be plans for Spring 2021, or a five-year trajectory – anything that is on your radar).

Tess: Our biggest plan right now is that we were approved by the Sustainable Projects Fund for a new high tunnel, which is really awesome It’ll expand the amount of pace that we have to do season extension growing through the winter. People will be able to be in that space for more workdays and research projects. We had a really cold winter when we were away, and when I went back, there was spinach and another mustard green still growing in there. We’ll have double that amount of space through the whole year, which will be amazing. 
Eric: So many plans…As far as plans for the physical space, this spring we are going to build a second high tunnel, which will give us a lot more growing space to use during the school year.  This means more class projects, more ability for students to garden under cover in a warm place, and more salad bar greens in Harris. We also have plans to build a pavilion that can be used for classes, student activities, and performances. There are really no covered outdoor spaces on campus, so this could help with that. We also have plans to plant a berry patch and more native pollinator habitats. It is exciting to work with the Arboretum staff to make this happen and it’s been fun to have students work with them a bit as well, helping to integrate Sprout into the amazing landscape that we have here at Conn. Also, Tess is working on putting together an information station/bulletin board so people can learn about what we do there, how to get involved, and Sprout’s history. Oh yeah, and we took the big fence down this winter because it was starting to rot out.  I kind of like how open and inviting it looks now so we will see if we can use a lot of deer repellant and see how it goes before we commit to building another fence.  If you see deer out there, please let me know!
As far as programming, partnerships, and curriculum, I’m pretty excited as well. Like I mentioned, course offerings are continuing to develop in the Botany department, the Food Pathway, and the Food Studies Concentration in Anthropology. And we are continuing to develop our summer internship program, building on what we started last year. As much as is safe and allowable, we will do more activities together with FRESH staff and youth program participants. We are also looking forward to helping with the New London Farmer’s Market, also given our ability to participate based on COVID restrictions. 
Students are looking forward to having some socially-distanced hangouts as the weather is starting to warm a bit and the Sprout Club is planning some other events to come. This winter, we lost a dear friend, Hans Horst-Martz ‘21, who was such a positive force at the garden. Sprout has been a good space to remember his energy, humor, and caring attitude towards his peers and we are working on figuring out a good way to honor his spirit at Sprout this spring. He will be missed very much. I hope we can carry his positive energy with us as we continue to transform that space into a big old delicious, healthy, salad bowl of student and community engagement.  
Lastly, I want to highlight that Sprout is there for you to enjoy. It is great to see students eating lunch under the pergola, checking out what’s growing, and exploring what’s going on in the high tunnel. Hopefully we can continue to make it a place that people like to hang out, whether or not they are wanting to learn about agroecology and food systems. Sometimes a garden is just a good place to have ideas and to meet fun people.

What is your favorite part about Sprout Garden?

Tess: Definitely the people who come through there. Everyone is always in a good mood when you’re in Sprout. It is such an easy place to connect with people. People are at ease when we’re with plants and in the dirt. It is easy to step outside of yourself when you’re producing something that is going to feed people. 
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