It might seem old school – really old school – to teach the basics of farming, growing and composting, because one would think that these skills should be timeless, but in the 21st century, everything old is new again. The Learning Garden at the PCC Rock Creek campus is making waves of grain with their progressive and well-planned raised beds, orchard, fruit-bearing bushes and vegetables-a-plenty. So much so, that they are supplying the needs of the campus cafeteria all while off-setting the costs of food for the college and helping reduce greenhouse gas emissions that are tabulated for PCC’s Climate Action Plan.
Because a college is about learning, the Learning Garden is aptly named and provides a nutrient-rich environment for organic gardening, permaculture, science, health education, landscape technology, building construction technology, art classes, conversations about ecology, health and nutrition and community based learning through local high schools.
Elaine Cole, the sustainability coordinator at the Rock Creek Campus, saw tremendous opportunity to grow the Learning Garden into a regional model of sustainable land use, education, and community outreach while enabling faculty, classes, and the entire PCC Community College network to collaborate in a deep and rich student learning environment. And she was right. After securing additional funding, Cole hired sustainability expert Nora Lindsey and wrote a grant enabling Jeff Mailes from AmeriCorps to join the team and serve as the Learning Garden educator, managing student engagement.
“Up until we brought on these two professionals, the food production was irregular and the classroom and faculty involvement was occasional. Everyone saw the potential and we are now realizing that potential to everyone’s satisfaction and pride,” noted Cole.
High Production Yield
The Learning Garden produced 3,500 pounds of food for Rock Creek and Sylvania campus food services in 2013. This high yield is partly due to recently hired agriculture professional Nora Lindsey who acts as a Sustainability Assistant in title and the college’s resident farming pro in actual practice. She has transformed the three and half acres of available land into a well-managed farm with the help of students, faculty and staff who see a shared vision of sustainability and residential farming. This year she expects to reap:
- 30 apple trees.
- 50 blueberry bushes.
- 34 raised beds and an acre of field space for vegetables and herbs.
- Dozens of flower beds (for their on-campus Flowergram fundraiser).
- An earthen oven for baking breads, pizza, and other goodies from the garden.
- Plus 16 community beds (for students, staff and faculty).
“I’m amazed how engaged the students are – they are constantly assessing the production, growth, potential problems and providing solutions. I learn as much from them as they do from me,” Lindsey said. “Perhaps it’s in our genetic makeup to want to till the ground, get our hands dirty and take pride in growing food for others, but the Learning Garden has no shortage of students wanting to be involved and active in managing this outstanding example of learning put into practice.”
The Learning Garden established its roots almost eight years ago; when Portland State University graduate Karen Cox launched a therapeutic garden in the very spot the Learning Garden exists today. Over time, numerous programs, from organic to sustainable gardening, have sprouted up, organized and implemented by dedicated faculty members who saw potential for the land, and probably never dreamed of what the garden is today. Education is a vital part of the garden, and Mailes is tasked with creating and managing the volunteer programs for the garden.
AmeriCorps can be considered as a domestic Peace Corps for education enacted through the State of Oregon (Oregon State Service Corps) and the American Red Cross. Mailes’ affiliation with the organization allows him to be on site, to serve 1,700 hours over 11 months (before having to apply again). While many organizations are involved, Mailes is the glue to keeping the operation running smoothly. He is an expert at running educational programs, serving community members and community-based learning programs, and meeting high school class requirements. His efforts tie together class work in health and nutrition, environmental studies, landscape architecture classes, biology partnerships, and the faculty and staff at other colleges and universities.
“Having Jeff on board allows for collaboration and community outreach, and he has become the point person for the Learning Garden to share our educational goals of sustainability for the Rock Creek Sustainability Office,” noted Cole.
Current and Future Needs
Work is far from complete for the Learning Garden. There is ample opportunity for local businesses, community groups, and monetary and equipment donations to be supplied. “We want to increase food production so we can continue to off-set costs for the college, and also supply local food banks, but we also have a master plan and construction goals in the next few years to create a regional example for other colleges,” noted Lindsey.
Some of those goals include:
- A storage building for tools, tiller, and other farm implements.
- A covered gathering area for classes and community members to gather during rainy periods.
- Create a central composting area.
- Build a produce washing facility.
“We encourage the community to reach out to us. If you have an idea, a donation, or would like to get involved, please contact me, and let’s get our hands dirty – together!” Lindsey said.
A bit of fun – Art in the Garden
One last note: If the opportunity to tour the garden presents itself — and a tour is highly recommended — there is yet another attribute beyond neat rows of growing vegetables: the whimsical and imaginative art displays. Recently, the college put out a call to artists, and artists responded by adding all manner of metal art, repurposed tools (made into sculptures), metal-woven materials taking the shape of a giant bird nest, artful insects, modern art for interpretation, and many others. The art truly brings the Learning Garden full circle in its mission of, “Sowing Seeds, Growing Minds, and Cultivating Community.”