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May 7, 2016

Creative measures bring Permaculture garden to Southwest

The UMass Amherst Permaculture program began work on its second permaculture garden, which is located between Berkshire Dining Commons, the Bank of America ATM, and the Southwest Horseshoe last Friday.

The garden, located on the north side of Berkshire, will receive less sunlight, especially during the winter when the sun is lower in the sky, than the garden on the east end of Franklin.

In the first year of the two-year project, plants designed to remediate the soil and bring nutrients back to the ecosystem will prepare the land for the second phase, when plants like lettuce, spinach and herbs like basil, chamomile and rosemary will be planted and used in the Berkshire kitchen.

Due to the downward sloping gradient and the erosion caused by water running off the newly built Southwest mall between Berkshire and Hampshire dining halls, protective measures such as water-harvesting swales that will cut across the sloping incline on lengthwise parallels, will be incorporated into the garden.

These swales, dug out canals designed to catch the run-off rain-water starting at the top, overflowing down the hill into the next and then the next, will not to drain the water but facilitate the soil’s absorption of it. An additional retaining wall of hay bales further protects against erosion.

The fundamental concept of the permaculture garden, originally developed in the 1970s, is to work with nature, rather than against it, by mimicking natural patterns of plant growth.

Another problem the landscape faces as a result of the erosion of the topsoil is that the topsoil has mostly been gathered at the bottom of the slope, concentrated in the corners, or washed into the parking lot.

“There’s no vegetation here so with no vegetation there’s nothing that’s holding the soil in place, it just runs right off,” said Ryan Harb, Chief Sustainability Specialist for Auxiliary Enterprises.

Perennial plants like Jerusalem artichokes, sometimes called sunchokes for their bright yellow flowers, and comfrey, a deep-rooted herb whose rotting leaves create nutrient rich compost in the garden, will be planted during the first year to jump-start the ecosystem.

Foot traffic has also been responsible for matting down and compacting the sand and stones where the topsoil has washed away.

Soil samples from the area, where extensive nearby construction has taken place in past years, were drawn for analysis of heavy metals, namely lead, by the Plaint, Soil, and Insects Department, said Harb, who is awaiting the test’s results.

“Lead is the big one,” Harb said. “But if that is the case there are certain plants that you can put in there that take up the lead and concentrate it in their tissues,” offering the example of cattails, the fuzzy corn dog shaped plants that are used in biosorption projects to treat areas of contaminated water in a process called phytoremediation.

In addition approximately 15 volunteers on Friday began the first stage of what will ultimately prove a two-year long endeavor. A technique known as sheet mulching, where the soil was first aerated using pitchforks – and in the more compacted areas, pick-axes – then covered with copies of the Daily Collegian and overlapping sheets of cardboard, next piled with a healthy layer of compost, and finally topped off with wood chips that the University provided from the myriad of downed trees on campus.

Rather than disturb the microorganisms that live beneath the soil and that will later become integral pieces in the final garden, soil is lifted up with pitchforks and put right back, causing minimal disturbance while creating enough room for the roots of plants to grow.

The newspapers and cardboard halt the photosynthetic processes of grasses and weeds growing beneath the garden and when wetted begin the decomposition process to enrich the soil.

Compost is piled on top to provide nutrients for the plants to grow, and wood chips are piled on top of that.

Harb said this phase of the project needs to be finished by Thanksgiving, after which the ground will likely be too cold to work with.

The project is the second undertaken by the UMass Amherst Permaculture program, which began by transforming the 12,000 square foot area outside Franklin Dining commons at the end of May this year. The project involved over 250 volunteers including university students, area high school field trip groups, and community volunteers.

Over 250,000 pounds of organic matter was moved by hand, including compost donated by UMass Amherst Office of Waste Management, cardboard from the Dining Commons, and wood chips from the University.

A documentary was made about the project focusing on the projects achievements in service learning and sustainability education.

The food grown in the garden is used in the Dining Common closest to the garden.

As an example of this, Harb explained the lettuce picked from the Franklin garden was washed at Franklin before going onto the line of food alongside the tomato and onion slices, in the building 15 feet from where it grew, 15 minutes after it was picked.

With continued success of the permaculture garden, Harb said he expects the University to facilitate the construction of one additional garden every year.

Brian Canova can be reached at bcanova@student.umass.edu or followed on Twitter @BrianCanova.

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