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UMass students break new ground in sustainability

Ryan Harb digs in during a work session part of the campus Permaculture Initiative, an ecological design for sustainable agriculture which recently received recognition from the White House.
Ryan Harb digs in during a work session part of the campus Permaculture Initiative, an ecological design for sustainable agriculture which recently received recognition from the White House.NANCY PALMIERI for The Boston Globe

AMHERST — At 9 a.m. on a crisp, sunny morning recently, a dozen University of Massachusetts students are raking the soil of a garden bed. A pair scoot by with a wheelbarrow full of compost. Nearby, mustard greens are already sprouting; Welsh onions, kale, and garlic are on the way.

These students are not isolated in a remote field. They are tilling the soil of a forgotten patch of lawn in front of a massive dining hall as other students in sweatshirts and jeans amble by on their way to class.

Student Gabrielle Cook, foreground, and other students and volunteers prepare planting beds.
Student Gabrielle Cook, foreground, and other students and volunteers prepare planting beds.NANCY PALMIERI for The Boston Globe

Although most of the vegetables, herbs, and fruits harvested here will go directly to that dining hall’s kitchen, these students have more in mind than fresh spinach and butternut squash. The UMass Permaculture Initiative, a program that turns unused lawns into gardens, was recognized last month by the White House when the initiative’s sustainability coordinator, Ryan Harb, received one of five “Campus Champions of Change” awards on behalf of the program. Key philosophies of permaculture are to reclaim underused plots of land for agriculture, perform a careful site assessment to determine the crops best suited for the particular land, and plant complementary species that will require a minimum amount of upkeep.

“Not everyone is going to come here, learn about perma-
culture, and go be a farmer or a permaculture designer,” says Harb, a recent alumnus. “But we might take this and apply it to our lives in some way.” Harb says that perhaps people will hear about it and start their own small gardens, or encourage their employers to plant fruit trees. “We don’t know the potential of it yet,” he says. “It could get so big.”

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The planting beds will become the Berkshire Permaculture Garden, part of the campus Permaculture Initiative.
The planting beds will become the Berkshire Permaculture Garden, part of the campus Permaculture Initiative.NANCY PALMIERI for The Boston Globe/Globe Freelance

The yield from this garden will barely put a dent in the university’s food needs, but the intent is educational as well as practical. “These gardens are not meant to feed every student on campus, by any means. They’re meant as models that can be replicated,” says Josefine Nowitz, a junior and marketing coordinator for the project. “We want people to think differently about food systems in the US and how easy it is to grow your own food.”

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This 12,000-square-foot lawn had been targeted for a new parking lot when a group of students persuaded the university in 2010 to let them have a go at turning it into a garden. The school agreed, creating a full-time position for Harb to lead the effort. The school has since hired two more coordinators and created paid support positions for three students, including Nowitz.

Welsh onions grow where a parking lot was planned.
Welsh onions grow where a parking lot was planned.NANCY PALMIERI for The Boston Globe/Globe Freelance

Over the following winter, the soil was given nutrients in the form of compost, cardboard, and copies of the campus newspaper, and a plot was laid out to include a vegetable garden, space for herbs and medicinal plants, a mini grove of fruit trees, and a section mimicking the intertwining ecosystem of a forest.

The garden is now managed by a class that meets all year for full academic credit. Two new courses devoted to the principles of permaculture are planned for next year. In addition to this garden, the group is breaking ground on another plot behind the Berkshire dining hall, on a rocky slope of ground that was barely supporting grass cover.

Some 300 area students have visited the gardens for a hands-on lesson, and UMass is selecting four Pioneer Valley schools to partner with so they can create their own gardens. The university is even hosting a conference in June for other colleges interested in creating similar programs. At least a dozen have been in touch about attending.

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The permaculture project has also brought together seemingly disparate departments within the university itself. Corey Colbert, a senior in the business school, says he never pictured himself getting up early to go out and mulch.

“I’m getting a different feeling out of it,” says Colbert, “a different sense of accomplishment. That physical presence of it being there, that yes, we did it. We all did it together.”


Jeremy Goodwin can be reached at jeremy@jeremydgoodwin.com.