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Next on the Menu for UMass Permaculture

Outside the twenty-two floors that are the dorms in Southwest sits a vegetable garden adorned with greenery and decorative signs planted alongside Berkshire Dining Commons. A garden in the middle of a city — an innovation that expanded to the community in two years.

University of Massachusetts, Amherst dished out details on a new community project bringing permaculture gardens to elementary schools. This community idea started in 2011 by the Steering Committee. UMass Permaculture Initiative was awarded the 2012 White House Champions of Change on March 15, for their permaculture gardens; a way to cheaply and sustainably produce thousands of pounds of food to students since 2010.

“I pictured being recognized as the first to have an innovative design such as the garden by the President,” said Kevin Toong, Executive Director of Auxiliary Services.

The UMass Permaculture Committee, part of the Campus Sustainability Inititative, partnered with Permaculture Academic Program Coordinator, Ryan Harb, of Stockbridge School of Agriculture and the Amherst Public School System to consider gardens at elementary schools. It’s “learning by doing,” Harb said. The project is still in design stage, but his hope is for children to learn and have it [the garden] there, but the idea of placing gardens in more public places are still in conference.

“The goal is to have a new garden every year,” said Sustainability Manager, Rachel Dutton.

Between funding, labor, and maintaining a garden is hard work – the cost can range from $10,000 to $15,000 depending on what resources and materials are readily available. Depending on what is available, (and the size of the garden), materials such as soil, nutrients, and seeds are needed to start. Then come the tools: shovels, rakes, pitchforks, hoses, and maybe a toolshed. Franklin Permaculture Garden took composted food, recycled cardboard, and took wood from the ground and ground them into wood chips to prepare the soil. Things got costly more costly when UMass bought starter seeds and hand-crafted signs for décor.

The students and staff on the Sustainability Steering Committee are rooted in the design and leadership of the garden. It’s a yearlong commitment, but provides students with three credits per semester.

“We’re taking academia and turning it into hands-on work; direct applicability on campus and community,” said Dutton.

Currently, there are nine undergrads and two full-time staff. The university received a Creative Economy Grant from the campus President worth $25,000. Creative economy; a term, Harb said, means finding creative ways potential jobs can be created.

So what does it take to make a garden grow?

The grant will be split in two ways. Five thousand dollars will go to an international conference summer 2013, hosted by UMass, to teach and share the model of the gardens to other campuses. The remaining $20,000 will go toward paying someone to work with schools, labor expenses, and material costs.

Toong said the gardens regenerate itself producing 1,000 to 1,5000 lbs. of vegetables in just one school year – with the long-term goal to grow 4,000 lbs. To Toong and Dutton’s surprise, students did not steal crops, vandalize, or wither the planting process. While the thought certainly crossed Dutton’s mind, she said the students proved her wrong.

Since winning the award, the campus received inquiries from other schools asking about the project and there the idea originated. This past June, UMass hosted an international campus conference and come up with community project; the local initiative. Greenfield Community College will finish its garden this fall or Spring 2013.

To be served – Toong and Harb want to plant perennial vegetables, fruit trees, annual vegetables, and herbs. “We are taking land and turning it into a garden,” so keep your eyes peeled.

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