Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

From Grass to Food to White House

I probably voted about a hundred times for UMass Permaculture to go to the White House. And they deserve to go; from the few chances I got to volunteer at the garden, I noticed all of the people on the committee were extremely enthusiastic and knowledgeable about the landscape.  In fact, I learned so much about plant life that I caught myself sending an impassioned comment about how marigolds and chives are natural pest repellants to an article deeming pesticides an absolute necessity to farming (Yes, I am that person).

But it’s not just a matter of gardening. What makes this project so far-reaching, and consequently what got us to win the “Campus Champions of Change Challenge” in the first place is how much they promote sustainability. The University of Massachusetts is one of the few colleges in the nation to have such a unique system where the plants yielded from the ground are circulated into the dining commons and then incorporated back into the soil as compost.

It’s a pretty simple system. From its conception, the way this 12-square-foot area functions is what Ryan Harb describes in the UMass Permaculture Documentary Series as a “no-till gardening method.” Harb, a certified permaculture designer and recent graduate of UMass’ Green Building master’s program, was the driving force behind making the transition from grass to food in one year.

His reasoning for this method is that tillage, or the “mechanical agitation” that comes with preparing the soil – which can range from manual shoveling to one of those big cultivator shanks that tear up the ground with their teeth – compresses and breaks soil aggregates, which are necessary for good air, water and movement growth. By reducing this amount of compaction, after five months plants “have this great growing medium to thrive in” and are able to harbor those glorious worms. Permaculture really loves its worms.

This practice is really how nature intended food to be. But it’s a practice most farming business have rendered obsolete to compensate for mass production. I’m sure that there are maybe a handful of big companies who model a system like this, considering the benefits of taking a crop out of the ground early so that they can ripen while they are transported to another area. They don’t think to actually let food reach its peak nutrient-making abilitity, and therefore its taste. There is no 4-inch-layer of compost to “meat up” microbes or a mulch layer to contain the moisture of the soil. They don’t top it off with a cardboard barrier to keep grass from coming up. That would be just too extraneous.

Despite the absence of mechanical help, permaculture still feeds the thousands of students that come to Franklin Dining Commons every day.  In September and November, you can be sure that most of the vegetables on your plate come straight from a garden, a promise not even the supermarkets we trust to feed us can guarantee 100 percent of the time.

And yet through such a minimalist and easily replicated system, it beats all of the other expedient ones by way of the smallest care and proper attention to the surrounding ecosystems. That is something to be truly lauded. The passion and dedication that come from tending this area certainly fit Obama’s description of “college and university students [who] are helping our country out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world.”

Permaculture is defined as “a theory of ecological design which seeks to develop sustainable human settlements and agricultural systems, by attempting to model them on natural ecosystems.” It was first coined by Australians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in the 1970s.  If they saw our implementation on campus, I’m sure they’d be proud to see that their application of working with rather than against nature. Although I live on a sustainability floor where permaculture is talked about often, I don’t think this garden gets the full recognition or attention it deserves.

UMass is the largest public university in New England, so it should have been an easy shot to win over Arkansas in the “Campus Challenge,” yet we were almost beaten two days prior to the final vote.  While we did make it in the last couple of days with a total of 59,841 votes (with 3 votes per person), I feel like the 9,883 likes that were next to it on Facebook was more of an indicator of how many people actually knew about the cause and supported it. This is a shame because permaculture is a beautiful thing that most of us would appreciate if we took the time to understand all the thought in its design.

Instead of saying white clover is just a weed and should be chucked, permaculture praises the plant for preventing the spread of other weeds, making nitrogen available to other plants and having medicinal properties. I know the hours are early to volunteer, but if anything, check it out and see if you can name any of the plant species there. Too often we are so detached from our food to the point that looking at it in its natural form seems foreign. Become familiar with your food by helping it grow with your own hands.

Alexa Jones is a Collegian columnist. She can be reached at [email protected].

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    Mary NelenMar 13, 2012 at 3:27 pm


    Great story but is it true that it is permaculture gardens that are supplying food to UMass students? Might be a bit early for this garden to be yielding much food. Don’t think other food grown at Umass is from a permaculture garden….?