Permaculture Initiative sprouts new garden

By Tom Barnes

Maria Uminski/Collegian

The workers at the University of Massachusetts Permaculture Initiative spent the summer both raking the ground as they planted a new garden next to Berkshire Dining Commons and raking in awards.

The new garden changed the sloping hillside outside the cafeteria from an “eroded, depleted and compacted” site to a “restored ecosystem,” said senior Josephine Nowitz, spokesman for the Permaculture Committee.

“That this site lacked any form of vegetation before we began to regenerate truly shows the immense power of ‘permaculturing’ your ecosystems and social systems,” Nowitz said, adding that the ultimate goal was to work “together toward a whole systems approach to going beyond sustainability.”

To invoke such a change at the Berkshire site, volunteers tried their hand at manually sheet mulching the garden, a process that regenerates a site entirely without fossil fuels. Volunteers then laid down newspaper and woodchips to stave off weeds and capture moisture.

Nowitz said one of the biggest hurdles for the Permaculture Committee was building awareness and finding volunteers, which the group combated with informational YouTube videos and presentations to classes. Another challenge came with recruiting more students to fill seats on the committee, as many of the former members had graduated.

Nowitz said the placement of the garden outside of Franklin has been helpful to spark interest of those passing by the site.

“This high visibility flagship garden of the UMass Permaculture Initiative allows for people to see the evolution of an ecosystem, become educated by hands-on involvement, and empowers people to grow their own food,” Norwitz said.

Sophomore Varshini Prakash, who took a permaculture class over the summer, also noticed the success of the Initiative that grew from the Franklin Permaculture garden.

The Franklin garden, located outside of Franklin Dining Commons, has generated a lot of interest on campus and inspired the creation of more gardens.

“The Franklin garden has been immensely successful. I’m really proud of the way it looks and students and staff alike have put in so much hard work to get it to the place it is now,” Prakash said.

More than 1,000 people have volunteered over the past two years to complete Franklin garden, a quarter-acre plot that gradually transformed from an unused scrap of land to a low-maintenance and sustainable garden that produces fruits, nuts and flowers for the dining halls.

The garden continued to impress judges at national competitions as Dining Services and the Permaculture Initiative earned more awards over the summer.

At a conference in Boston this July, UMass Dining Services and the Permaculture Initiative accepted the National Association of College and University Food Services’ grand prize for excellence in sustainable dining as well as the top prize in the Education and Outreach category, adding to the Campus Champions for Change award in the group collected from President Barack Obama in Washington, D.C., last spring.

The grand prize award for excellence in sustainable dining demonstrates that UMass models “exemplary excellence in the pursuit of a sustainable dining practice resulting in a significantly reduced environmental impact and providing a best practice model for the NACUFS membership,” according to the National Association of College and University Food Services.

In addition to the awards, the University also received an indigenous tree to plant on campus.

“UMass Amherst is one of the only public universities in the country putting new permaculture gardens directly on campus and using the food raised in its dining commons,” NACUFS said in a statement.

Ken Toong, executive director of Auxiliary Enterprises at UMass, accepted the awards on behalf of the University.

“We are deeply honored to be recognized by NACUFS and peers in its inaugural presentation as the ‘best of the best’ in the Sustainability Awards category. There are so many great efforts among colleges and universities to make our world a better place. I think the best is yet to come,” Toong said in a University press release. “We are proud of the success of the UMass Permaculture Initiative … it has become a subject of campus-wide pride.”

Toong said he is optimistic about the future of the permaculture in the area and that UMass dining plans to create a permaculture garden at each dining commons.

“There are many opportunities for us to grow the permaculture efforts on campus and assist other non-profit organizations, such as K to 12 schools and colleges,” Toong said. “We just need to be creative.”

UMass Dining Services also won a Shine Award from the Canadian College and University Food Service Association. UMass is the first school from the United States to earn the award, according to a University press release.

The Canadian College and University Food Services cited the Permaculture Initiative as being one of the reasons UMass received the award.

To learn more about the UMass Permaculture Initiative, visit its website UMassPermaculture.com.

Tom Barnes can be reached at [email protected]