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On Fertile Ground

In Albright's community garden, four student interns are cultivating vegetables, promoting sustainability, and nurturing a sense of community. The interns are blogging about the experience and will present information at the Berks Sustainability Festival on July 19.

By Hilary Bentman

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Intern Ellen Underwood '17 picks snap peas in Albright's community garden.

On a warm, humid morning, weeks after most students have gone home for the summer, Ellen Underwood '17 and Brian Nguyen '15 are hard at work in the Albright College Community Garden.

On this day, the pair picks snap peas off a trellis and places the sweet pods into baskets, though not before sampling a few themselves.

The students are careful not to eat too many. After all, the snap peas are bestsellers at a weekly stand on campus, which features other garden bounty, including Swiss chard, cucumbers, peppers, tomatoes and herbs.

Stand proceeds help replenish the community garden. But this enterprise is not about making money. Its real value lies in promoting sustainability and a sense of community.

Located on a small parcel of land off Linden Street behind the Experiential Learning and Career Development Center, the Albright Community Garden is in its third year and thriving.

"It's huge now, like a forest. The paths have disappeared," says Underwood, an environmental science and Spanish major. "It's so cool to walk in this fertile growing place."

With the help of assistant professor of sociology and environmental studies Brian Jennings, Ph.D., four student interns – Underwood, Nguyen, Alyssa Miller '16 and Tess Adgie '15 – are spending the spring, summer and fall cultivating the garden, harvesting and selling its yield, and promoting eco-friendly living.

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Assistant professor of sociology and environmental studies Brian Jennings, Ph.D., (left) examines a squash plant with interns Ellen Underwood '17 and Brian Nguyen '15.

The garden includes 10 community plots – 5-foot-by-5-foot sections where Albright staff/faculty and residents from the adjacent College Heights neighborhood can grow their own produce and flowers.

"It's about building community relations," says Jennings.

This year, for the first time, the students are blogging about the garden and producing a newsletter to chronicle their experiences and provide tips for living more sustainable lives.

On July 19, the students will take their sustainability message on the road when they participate in the inaugural Berks Sustainability Festival. Located in the parking lot of the Vanity Fair Outlets in Wyomissing, the daylong event is dedicated to supporting local agriculture, artists and like-minded efforts to minimize environmental damage while maximizing preservation and community growth.

At the festival, the Albright students will present information about campus-wide sustainability efforts and goals, and will highlight the community garden.

"Since we were kids, we all heard about recycling," says Nguyen, a biology and family studies major. But, he adds, there's so much more people can do, and it's "great we have a festival for it."

This year, the weekly garden stand has expanded its offerings to include fresh products from local businesses and artisans, including organic hot sauce, locally roasted coffee, and homemade jams courtesy of Albright English lecturer James Gaffney.

"This is about feeding people, taking care of yourself and knowing where your food is coming from," says Miller, an environmental studies major. "The goal is being aware of your environment and getting people in touch with it more."

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Albright faculty, staff and students can purchase produce from the garden at a weekly stand on campus, which also features fresh products from local businesses/artisans.

The interns are hoping to donate some of the food they grow to local organizations that encourage children to eat healthier and support families in need.

The Albright Community Garden began three years ago. During the off season, members of E.C.O. (Environmental Campus Outreach), the College's student-run environmental club, help plant seeds and maintain the grounds.

The garden employs permaculture, a design process promoting agricultural, environmental, architectural, technological and economical sustainability.

"It's an environmentally friendly garden, mimicking natural patterns in nature and maximizing space," says Underwood.

The garden is actually built on top of the soil, rather than dug into it, and uses byproducts from campus. Coffee grounds from Jake's Java are used for the garden's lasagna-type layering, while leftover building materials helped construct an herb spiral. In the garden, a barrel collects rain to water the crops, and no pesticides or herbicides are used.

"It's working with nature rather than against it," says Jennings.

Of course, nature does have a way of rearing its head, especially this year. When a freak hail storm hit Reading in the spring, the students feared the worst. The golf ball-sized hail, which shattered windows and damaged cars, left large holes in the lettuce leaves.

"But the garden has really bounced back," says Underwood.

This fall, Albright will open its first Sustainability House, which backs up to the garden. Modeled on the affinity housing program, the Sustainability House will be tied directly into the environmental studies curriculum. Five students will be housed there, with the goal of living sustainably. Students, for instance, will track their energy and water usage and waste.

Jennings and the interns are also hoping to get the greenhouse next to the garden up and running and possibly expand the garden to the Sustainability House's yard.

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Read the Albright Community Garden blog: http://albrightcollege.wordpress.com/

For more information: https://www.facebook.com/albrighteco

 

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