Campus Spotlight: Inver Hills-Metro State Community Garden

 [As published in The Word, the Inver Hills Student Newsletter, March 28, 2013. Contact]

Inver Hills-Metro State Community Garden
Inver Hills-Metro State Community Garden
Behind Heritage Hall is our own Inver Hills Community Garden.  An inch of snow shrouds the land; but as winter melts away, radiant flowers, luscious apples, and colorful vegetables will decorate the space.  Groups will come together to cultivate, harvest, contribute their crops, and share their stories.  In Wordsworthian-style, English professors can use the outdoor classroom to inspire their poetry students, while Science professors can bring their classroom to nature.  These are the images Dr. Barbara Curchack planted in my head as walked the garden space one chilly afternoon.
Back in Dr. C’s office, garden tools lean against her bookcase stacked with dense psychology books. We warm up and begin the interview.  Here’s an excerpt from our talk:
S:  Ok. Do plants have feelings?
Dr. C.: No, there’s no evidence that plants have feelings, I’m sorry.
S: Aw, that’s okay. I was trying to find a way to mold psychology and plants!
Dr. C.:  Well, there are a lot of ways that gardening and psychology mesh with one another, but it’s not so much the feelings of the plant.  There are more ways than I realized when I had students doing service learning in my psychology classes and they were reflecting on how the psychology applied.  There are a lot of psychological benefits to gardening, like when you’re gardening alone. There are also psychological benefits of people who are very different from one another working together. When people who have very different views come together for a common goal, a lot of those other views take a back seat, and people realize the humans that they’re working with.  And, that’s one of the best way to reduce racism, ageism, and to reduce other forms of discrimination.  So, the garden builds a lot of community and that’s psychology.  In terms of learning theory, when people make information meaningful to them, they learn better.  So, if they’re doing something that they find meaningful, their learning is going to be much deeper than if they’re not.  If a student is really interested in the experience of gardening and they’re also learning about how people learn, their course knowledge gets enhanced by the learning they’re doing in the garden.  They see it in action.
S:  The community garden is a fairly recent addition to our campus. Can you tell me a little bit about what the community garden is and how it serves the community on-campus and off-campus?
Dr. Barbara Curchack
Dr. Barbara Curchack
Dr. C.:  The idea started in April of 2011 and then we talked to the community in the summer of 2011. Everybody said “Wow! That’s a good idea!”  We thought we would be building something about the size of my office.  And the campus said, “No, we want something much bigger.”  Now we’re half an acre.  We started planting in the spring of 2012.  We put in the apple orchard in the fall, and now here we are getting ready for our second growing season!
There are four areas of the garden.  The first area are plots for individual users, which are 10 by 10 plots.  These benefit the community because on campus, students are first priority for the plots and then you have faculty members, staff members, and community members who are also gardening together.  Everybody meets everyone in a place that’s not a classroom and it’s not inside; everyone’s outside sharing with each other.  And then, it’s benefiting the food community.  Some of the community members last year used their plots just to plant vegetables for food shelves. Perfect! We’re happy with that.
The second and third areas are the community growing areas.  Those areas are where people come together to do service learning, volunteering; or they might be taking a class, or they’re asked to do service learning.  Sometimes we have a lot of people who come out and say, “Hey! I don’t have anything to do, put me to work!”  And all the food that we raise goes to food shelves.  Last year we gave to the St. Paul Lutheran Church, which has community meals every Wednesday night, so we’d bring lots of produce for those folks who are usually homeless people who come to eat.  This year we’re expanding and working with the Eagan Resource Center, which is another food shelf, but they have a
commitment to be giving 70% of all their food fresh.  So we’re really helping with the community that way.  We’ve also planted the apple orchard, so eventually we will have thousands of pounds of apples that we’re going to be giving away, which is so exciting!
The last area is the outdoor classroom. If the faculty is teaching something that they want their students to be outside for, they can reserve that classroom just like any other classroom on campus.  Maybe poetry teachers want to be out there reading garden-based poetry.  There is a lot of different things that can happen out in that space!
S:  How can we, as a campus community, be involved?  You talked a little bit about this already, but what are some specific things that anybody can do here to help out?
Dr. C.:  Students, faculty, and staff can have a plot, although students have the highest priority.  So, if they want to be on campus during the summer gardening and be a part of something bigger that way or grow their own food…or bring their kids! No pets!
S: But my pet is my kid!
Dr. C.: Sorry!  No pets!  Students can also volunteer.  So, the volunteering hours that are set up now—once the ground is thawed enough—which we think will be early April, will be on Wednesday from 12-2, Thursdays from 9-11, and Saturdays from12-2.  If they have the option to do service learning—for extra credit or something—they can ask their teachers if they can get extra credit for working in the garden.  Or they can just show up, if
they don’t have anything to do.  They can get their hands dirty and play in the dirt with us.  They can also use the space.  That classroom is a really nice place. If the space isn’t being used and you want to just hang out and do your work outside, it’s a nice place to do it.  There are a lot of trees that are a backdrop to the garden space with a bunch of oak trees.  I see students out there now all the time sitting, under a tree, getting stuff done.
S:  Do you have a green thumb at home?
Dr. C.:  My husband is the true gardener, you know, he’s really a flower gardener.  I grew up with gardening for fruits and vegetables and stuff like that. You know how there are sous chefs in restaurants? I’m a sous gardener:  I’m constantly learning. One of the things I like [about the community garden] is that I learn from my students.  Sometimes my students teach me.  So, yes, I garden, but I’m always learning and there’s always something you don’t know. That’s the beauty of it; I mean, that’s what life is—it’s lifelong learning.  And it’s our lifelong learning lab out there.
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