Renowned British horticulturalist and writer Gertrude Jekyll, who created more than 400 gardens in the United Kingdom, Europe and America during her career, once said, “A garden is a grand teacher.”
I like to think Megan Styles, an environmental anthropologist at the University of Illinois Springfield, may have been inspired by Jekyll’s words when she led an initiative at UIS to establish a now-thriving addition to the campus — the UIS Community Garden.
Located near the historic Strawbridge Shepherd House, the garden was dedicated during Earth Week in April 2016 and has since become an important instructional facility as well as an engaging intersection for volunteers from the campus and the community. More than 200 volunteers have worked in the garden since its opening, and it has already produced over 300 pounds of fresh produce.
“The UIS Community Garden has been student-driven,” says Styles.
Students in Styles’ “Introduction to Sustainability” class designed the garden as a class project, studying various sustainable garden designs, creating a comprehensive plan and budget and determining the organizational approach that would best support a community garden project over time.
The garden features raised beds which help control weeds and handle drainage. Wooden compost containers and an in-ground vermiculture compost bin provide a steady supply of organic material that promotes soil microbes and plant growth.
For environmental and educational reasons, no chemical herbicides or pesticides are used. Instead, sustainable practices such as physical removal of insects and the application of pest-control substances from an organic-approved list help control common garden pests.
“Talented members of the UIS grounds crew have been great partners for us,” Styles says. “They fenced the 1,250-square-foot garden to protect it from deer and other wildlife, and this year, added a greenhouse that will substantially lengthen our growing season.”
The garden includes many typical vegetables like tomatoes, cucumbers, peas and broccoli, but thanks to heirloom seed donations from Springfield’s own Suttill’s Gardens and the Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, Iowa, more unusual varieties like sweet chocolate peppers, Ping Tung Long eggplant, fuzzy purple cauliflower and Red Russian kale are also thriving.
City Water, Light and Power donated bee balm, butterfly bushes and milkweed varieties to help attract pollinators to the garden and support Monarch butterflies and other beneficial insect varieties. A GoFundMe campaign raised funds for the purchase of tools and other garden supplies. An increasing number of diminutive gnomes (mysterious contributions from an unknown donor) have taken up residence throughout the garden — adding an element of whimsy, charm and, of course, good luck.
Daniel Rodriguez, a sophomore biology major from Joliet, is keeping a watchful eye on his sunberry bush, a new addition to the garden this year.
“As project coordinator, I’m out here Monday through Friday working in the garden,” says Daniel. “I love interacting with volunteers every week, and I’ve learned a lot, not only about the plants themselves, but also about pests that come into the garden and organic approaches to controlling them.”
Springfield resident Alana Reynolds is one of several regulars at the garden who often brings her daughters to pitch in at the work sessions Wednesday evenings.
“The UIS Community Garden is a place to learn and share practical knowledge,” Alana says. “Any Springfield resident who visits the garden is sure to leave with some sense of worth — whether it be an armload of fresh veggies, a new friend or a skill that has been learned.”
Looking toward the future, Styles would like to work with faculty colleagues to build more connections between the garden and the student experience at UIS, offering additional coursework and research opportunities.
“The garden is first and foremost an educational space,” she says, “and we’ll make it even more educational and more sustainable as we continue to develop.”
You can follow activities at the UIS Community Garden via Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/UISGarden, or better yet, grab your garden gloves and join us for a work session any Wednesday evening between 5 and 7 p.m.