Two years ago, when Keely McCarthy, Ph.D., associate professor of English and coordinator of the writing program, began teaching both first-year writing and advanced writing courses on food and food-related issues, she never imagined the students would become so interested in what they were learning and the volunteer work they were doing, that they would ask the question, “Why can’t we start a garden on campus?”
“The students thought having a garden would be a good way for them to stay involved after the semester and the class was over,” says McCarthy. “They also, after having volunteered at places like Weaver’s Way, which is a local food co-op, area soup kitchens, and Philabundance, really liked the idea of being able to donate food they would grow themselves.”
As the class progressed and the students continued to express their desire to take what they were learning in the classroom and apply it in the real world, the question morphed into one of action thanks to McCarthy and her colleague, Bob Meyer, Ph.D., professor of biology.
“I had been having a similar discussion with Bob about starting this garden and for it to be this living laboratory for all classes or groups to use,” she says. “So together we went to the administration and got permission and were given a plot of land at Sugarloaf.”
With that, the Griffin Garden was born and enthusiastic students began the process of creating the garden’s foundation, one step at a time.
“This was brand new so we had to do pretty much everything from scratch,” says Andrew Conboy ’18, one of the students from the class and current president of the Griffin Garden Club.
This meant building a wall because the land was on a slope, putting up a fence to keep the wildlife out and according to Jared Whack ’16, the club’s vice president, “Digging. Lots and lots of digging.”
Once the foundation took shape, the club and students from McCarthy’s class began planting, everything from your standard fare of cucumbers, tomatoes and carrots to the more exotic vegetables including squash, corn and even pumpkins. At the end of the harvest season, the club had grown roughly 84 pounds of food, most of which they donated to St. Vincent DePaul in Germantown as well as a food kitchen in Norristown, Pa.
“Being able to donate all that food and see the smiles when we drop it off, it’s just a really great feeling,” says Conboy. “But it was unexpected, especially given we basically had to start over with the plants after a bad storm washed everything away.”
Conboy explains that while that was a deflating experience, it was also one that gave the members the chance to problem solve and figure out how to prevent the same thing from happening again. They came up with the idea to build trenches to catch the water and prevent as much flooding damage as possible.
“All sorts of obstacles arise for gardens, and just like any endeavor, working together, researching, experimenting and reflecting will solve problems,” says McCarthy.
According to Whack, it’s about learning through trial and error so in the future they can “minimize their losses.”
With the growing season now behind them, the club is focused on preparing the garden for the next harvest in the spring. This means conditioning the soil and continuing the wall building to expand on the land they used last year. It also means more time in the lab, where the club is learning about drip irrigation, controlling weeds and pests, both chemically and with fencing, growing season, when and how deep to plant, what might survive the best in this environment and much more.
“Dr. McCarthy and Dr. Meyer are both so hands on and the best part for me is being in the garden with them and learning from the experience both of them have been able to offer us, as it has really made the garden what it is,” says Conboy, who is optimistic that this year, weather permitting, the produce yield will be even greater than the last.
—Marilee Gallagher ’14