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U Students Tend an Organic Garden and Harvest a Ton of Produce for Local Food Pantries

July 8, 2002 — One hundred and twenty University of Utah students are currently enrolled in Biology Professor Fred Montague’s Concepts in Biology class. They are learning about soil fertility, plant physiology, organic gardening and the environmental impacts of land use. The students are also learning how to “act locally” to address issues of global significance.

So why is Montague, a wildlife biologist, interested in gardening? “It would be a tragedy if the last wetland had to be filled in or the last grizzly bear habitat had to be developed to grow food for people. Here’s a wildlife conservation activity that every individual, every family and every community can get involved in. And it’s healthy in more ways than one.”

One class project examines the challenges of sustaining worldwide food production. To make this critical issue relevant to students, Montague teaches them to plant and cultivate organic gardens on campus. Montague, who grows nearly all of his own produce year round and enjoys it with homemade bread, says, “Growing food industrially is the land use activity that has the greatest overall impact on the environment. By learning how to grow their own food, students are empowered to become self sufficient and to realize the potential of urban areas in food production since the soil, water, space, gardeners and proximity to consumers are all present.”

Participation-two hours per week outside of class-in Montague’s garden “lab” is required, but there is no loss of points if the plants die. Teams of two or three students tend 50 garden plots that surround the U’s Sterling Sill Center. Seedlings are purchased from reputable nurseries or started from heirloom, specialty or high-altitude seeds, then grown in the greenhouses atop the U’s Aline Wilmot Skaggs Biology Research Building. Garden plots are interplanted with a wide variety of fruit, vegetables and flowers. The traditional Native American “three sisters” planting scheme-corn, beans and squash-is used throughout the garden. The corn stalks provide a natural trellis for the beans to climb, creating what Montague describes as a “tangle of productivity.”

“The hallmark of our garden is diversity,” says Montague, who is also academic advisor for the 700 undergraduate U biology students. “We companion plant small patches of plants interspersed with each other to avoid using chemical pesticides and synthetic fertilizers.”

Students also learn to mimic nature in an accelerated way by composting and using straw mulch. Montague says, “Compost is ready when it is the color and texture of devil’s food cake.” By using quality mulch, watering is minimized and soil temperatures are moderated. Principles of plant selection, climatology, soil development and water conservation are taught and implemented. The result? A yearly harvest of 2,000 pounds of organically-grown produce, which, according to the Utah Food Bank, is the equivalent of about 1,000 meals. The chemical-free food that is not donated to local food pantries is available for students to use.

The three-season, three-semester organic garden project has no budget but thrives nonetheless because students, faculty and staff donate plants and tools. A student and her landscaper father even installed a drip irrigation system.

One class member, 24-year-old environmental studies and communication major Amanda Walker, says. “Organic gardening is something I am going to do for the rest of my life, and I’m going to teach my kids how to do it. Organic gardening is definitely a life skill.”

Walker, who hopes to work for The Nature Conservancy, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) or even start an environmental public relations agency, likes “the subversiveness” of growing her own food. “I’m actually pulling myself out of a system-the big food machine-that I’ve always seen as wrong. In order to affect environmental change, we have to be incredibly conscious of where our dollars are going. We have to put our dollars where we want the change,” she says.

Montague, who came to the University in 1993 after 18 years of teaching at Purdue, hopes to instill in his students a sense of environmental consciousness. His Literature of Ecology class explores the relationship between humans and their environments by writing about the topic and reading classics like Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire and Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, among others. And, for the last six years, Montague’s Global Environmental Issues class partnered with TreeUtah to reestablish the cottonwood forest galleries along the Jordan River.

“The trees along the Jordan River are a critical habitat for many neotropical migrant songbirds who travel from Central and South America to Utah to nest,” Montague explains. “University of Utah students have the opportunity to contribute to this kind of ecological restoration right here! In six years, they have planted 30,000 trees.

“My students learn that human beings are an ecological force. We can literally change the landscape and the chemistry of the atmosphere and cause ecological communities to disappear-communities we depend upon for life to be on earth,” notes Montague. “We can’t destroy the life support systems that enable us to exist. It would be a tragedy if educated people were responsible for their destruction.”