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MC's Educational Garden growing in more ways than one

Barry McNamara
08/21/2012
The Monmouth College students who spent the summer on campus working at the Educational Garden are, from left, Kaitlyn Pfau, Will Terrill and George Burnette.
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Catchy three-word advertising slogans are in vogue these days. For Monmouth College’s Educational Garden, the phrase “Local. Organic. Sustainable.” is a perfect fit.
 
Those words can be found on the garden’s modest sign at 1042 E. Broadway, which is the address of the Garden House, where students George Burnette of Washington, Kaitlyn Pfau of Naperville and Will Terrill of Sandwich have lived all summer.
 
Despite the lack of rain these past few months, it’s been a productive summer. Most of their crops came in fine, and the students also built a greenhouse from reclaimed windows, introduced companion planting and raised-bed planting and became much more knowledgeable about canning and food preservation.
 
“We built the greenhouse from scratch,” said Burnette of the six-week project. “Even all of the shelving units are from recycled materials. We did all of the work, from tearing up the ground and laying the foundation, to painting and scraping and putting on the roof.”
 
“There was a LOT of scraping,” added Pfau, who spent her first summer at the house. Burnette and Terrill also lived on campus last summer and maintained the garden.
 
“Most of what was planted turned out all right,” said Pfau. “The Brussels sprouts did not turn out well, and neither did the broccoli, but that was just poor planning on our part. The eggplant turned out really well, and so did the pumpkins.”
 
Tomatoes, pole beans, bush beans, red noodle beans and “delicious” sage could also be found in abundance.
 
Another “crop” that was stronger this year than last was honey, reported Burnette. “We have seven beehives, up from three last year. There was no honey last year since it was a first-year hive.”
 
Now, the Garden House residents are overflowing with honey. Pfau went to the kitchen and returned with a gallon jug of the sweet nectar, one of four gallons that has been collected this summer.
 
“Raw honey has some really cool properties,” said Burnette, who has started a small honeybee co-op along with MC faculty member Craig Vivian. “Most of the honey in stores comes from bees who collect pollen from clover, and it’s really light. But some of our honey has different tastes due to different flowers, so it tastes like cinnamon or mint, and sometimes just pure sugar.”
 
“Raw honey also has natural allergy blockers,” said Pfau, who is a strong proponent of eating organically. “I love food and cooking and doing things like making curry from scratch out of herbs we grow in the garden. I’ve kind of become a food snob. I’m very conscious of buying local and practicing sustainability.”
 
“Once you’ve eaten fresh food, it’s hard to go to the store where every tomato looks exactly the same,” said Burnette.
 
“Because they’re filled with pesticides and hormones,” added Pfau.
 
The garden provides the students with most of their food throughout the year, so much so that they aren’t on the college’s meal plan. They do need to purchase bulk beans, rice and milk, but not much else comes from a store.
 
“Student work in the Educational Garden on our campus exemplifies the best virtues of the liberal arts approach to education,” said dean of the faculty David Timmerman. “They are focused on a good much bigger than themselves, in this case, in environmentally sustainable agricultural practices. In addition, students and professors work together, both fully engaged in complex problem solving and the bringing together of multiple disciplines for the task. It is fully integrated learning.”   
 
One might expect that out of three students who are this involved in gardening and beehives, at least one would be majoring in a subject such as biology or environmental science, but that’s not the case.
 
An English and history major, Pfau said the garden is “totally out of my realm. It’s just something I love to do. We get free housing, and we get paid for the work.”
 
After another summer at the garden next year, she plans to study abroad in the fall of her senior year and “would ultimately like to teach abroad, at least for a little while.”
 
An art major and business minor, Burnette said he got involved with the garden his freshman year, when he volunteered to do composting.
 
“That’s kind of how I got pulled into it. After I graduate from Monmouth, I want to go to grad school for architecture. I’m very interested in sustainable architecture, like what we were able to do with the greenhouse. When I’m living out on my own, I’ll always want to have a home with a garden.”
 
“On the surface, gardening is important because it provides us with a chance to step away from books for a while and get our hands dirty,” said Terrill, an English major who plans to go into teaching or to join the Peace Corps for agriculture. “But the importance goes much deeper. In an industrialized, fast-paced world, it pays in more ways than one to take a step back and evaluate the way we live. At the garden, this evaluation centers around our food systems and the effects they have on our health, our community and our environment. On the deepest level, the garden is a door to change, which opens the conversation to many issues that are often overlooked.”
 
The students are proud of what they’ve helped to create, and they enjoy showing it to visitors. That can include casual drop-ins from the neighbors on their block, dinners with faculty members and field trips by area youth, including the students at MC’s College For Kids and 45 area youth who were part of a Warren County YMCA program.
 
“The community outreach is just as big a part of this as the crops,” said Burnette. “We want to show how the benefits of something like this outweigh the costs.”
 
This fall, the students will host a series of movies relating to sustainability issues. This coming February, they’ll organize events around Sustainability Month.
 
Recently, the students hosted a special guest – a reporter from The Radish, a Quad Cities-based journal focused on healthy living – who came to Monmouth to write a feature story about the educational garden and the Garden House.
 
“Their premise was that their readers knew nothing about Monmouth or about a project like this,” said Burnette. “So the article will be an overview of how it started, how it’s funded, some of our main projects and how a small group of students are able to support themselves and not depend on the meal plan.”
 
The article will either appear in The Radish’s September/October issue or in a special issue in January.
 
It won’t be long, though, before the article is out of date. A few blocks northeast of the half-acre garden, work is beginning on a six-acre tract of land that will be developed over the next 10 years into a mini-farm, complete with livestock.
 
That ambitious project figures to require the summer efforts of more than three students. Some rain would be nice, too.