Coming Up Roses: All About UCSD’s Community Gardens

Three of UCSD’s community garden clubs share the backstory behind their gardens, their goals for the organization, and the reason why they garden (and why should, too!)

Tucked next to Muir Woods Coffee Shop, a sea of planter boxes and old trash barrels brimming with greenery, is John Muir College’s Community Garden, one of UC San Diego’s several community gardens. There are a few inviting tables and benches in the middle of a border of planter boxes, which bear the chalkboard labels “White Onions,” “Rosemary Thyme Chives,” “Peppers & Tomatoes,” and “Spookie Pumpkins.”. Despite the fact that the space is essentially a large square of concrete, there are potatoes, peppers, and onions, happily growing in their places.

Muir College senior Bethany Shimasaki, co-chair of the Muir Community Garden Club, wishes more students felt inclined to come spend their time studying, relaxing, or just hanging out in the garden. It’s clear that the garden space isn’t being utilized to its full potential. With midterms coming up, the shady, quiet, area surrounded by plants would make an ideal change of scenery to break up study sessions in the library. To make that happen, Shimasaki is on a mission to find more tables for the space. Along with three other fellow leaders, Shimasaki, a marine biology major, has managed to revive a garden that had nearly wilted away due to lack of care. A few years before she came to UCSD, a subcommittee in the Environmental Club started the garden and acquired all the planter boxes, but it died off after most of the members graduated. As a member of the Environmental Club herself, Shimasaki realized that no one was taking care of the plants in what was left of the garden, so she decided to take over. The four core members now have other volunteer gardeners joining them in meetings.

Shimasaki and her fellow leaders plant a variety of fruits and vegetables — based on what their members want to grow, what plants are in season, and how much space they have. Since their space is made up of concrete, they have to find plants that will thrive in boxes or, creatively, trash cans filled with soil.

“We just got a kumquat tree, and we want to do more citrus trees,” Shimaski said. “We’re trying to figure out where to put them. I really love blueberries, and I know that they grow pretty well in bushes. We take a vote based on what plants are in season. We obviously wouldn’t plant peppers and tomatoes and eggplants during the wintertime. Our goal is getting more containers and utilizing the space that we have.”

The club plants a variety of sprouts and seedlings, which are new plants that haven’t yet begun to grow. Muir Community Garden’s tomatoes and potatoes come from seedlings. According to Shimasaki, they get their plants from a variety of sources: nurseries or gardening stores like Armstrong Garden Centers, The Home Depot, or even Trader Joe’s for herbs. Other community gardens on campus help as well.

We also share a lot with other gardens; we get some of our seeds from Roger’s garden and some from Ellie’s garden,” Shimasaki said. “There’s a groundskeeper that has been very helpful for us. His name is Chris; he’s the advisor for Ellie’s garden, but he also helps us out a lot.”

One of those helpful partner gardens, Roger’s Community Garden, serves as a creative hub for many student organizations on campus to conduct outdoor experiments and test designs. It began as part of the C.H.E. Cafe to provide food for their kitchens. It was then later revived in order to grow produce for the Triton Food Pantry and collect food waste for composting. Now, it’s a constant source of collaboration for student orgs. Muir College senior Enid Partika, a environmental chemistry major and researcher at Roger’s Community Garden, is one of the students involved with the preservation and maintenance and she conducts her own project in the garden.

 “The garden provides students with opportunities to engage in student-centered research and hands-on experiential learning through access to grant funding, networking, and volunteering opportunities,” Partika said.  “It educates students, faculty, and community members about sustainable agriculture, renewable energy, composting, and hydroponic systems. Student orgs collaborate with the community garden volunteers and alumni to apply and receive grant funding to run their projects. My project, the anaerobic digestion system, was started this way and has given me the opportunity to work with private industry, academia, and students to create a small-scale food waste repurposing and carbon neutral system.”

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Roger’s Community Garden spans a sprawling clearing, an area surrounded by eucalyptus trees and behind the C.H.E. Cafe. There are many cacti, succulents, sheds, hoses, compost systems, and countless pots of greenery. Planter boxes are filled with vegetables, a wooden sign labelled “blackberry patch” stands in front of vines which run up lattice and down into a chipped bathtub. Tables and umbrellas are gathered in the quarter, and there’s an orchard of fruit trees — Gold Kist Apricot, Frederick Passion Fruit, Santa Rosa Asian Plum, and more. Roger’s smorgasbord of plants is more tropically-based, but they also have traditional produce, which is more beginner-friendly for amateur student gardeners.

“We have a variety of tropical plants, such as dragon fruit, pineapple guava, strawberry guava, and loquats, as well as herbs like oregano, rosemary, mint, thyme, and basil,” Partika said. “We also have general crops that are easier to grow, that volunteers and students plant: tomatoes, arugula, peppers, beans, onions, and squash.”

A third community garden on campus, Ellie’s Garden at Eleanor Roosevelt College, began about nine years ago when groundskeeper Chris Johnson noticed that the bare but weed-free and well-irrigated plots of land between residence halls could use some brightening up. He and a student began the garden project the following summer. The garden’s main goal is to promote sustainability and combat food insecurity on campus, and the variety of plants varies from season to season.

So what do these thriving gardens do with all the fruits of the students’ labor? After harvesting their vegetables, fruits, and herbs, the produce goes primarily to the student volunteers who helped grow it. Sometimes, they grow more than they can eat. Roger’s donates their excess food to the Triton Food Pantry, which could provide an even more impactful resource for students on campus than it already does, should more know about it. Muir has a few other outlets for their harvests.

“This past quarter, we grew carrots and peas, and we had roughly two pounds of carrots,” Shimasaki said ruefully. “If we have too much, usually we offer it to the Cooking Club in Muir. I don’t think we’ve ever had so much that we needed to give it to the food pantry, but that’s our goal for the future. We also use the food for events. We had a salad-in-a-jar party where we took lettuce, carrots, and tomatoes from our garden and made salads for people to come eat.”

ERC junior Alex Bogisich, a political science – international relations major, is particularly proud of Ellie’s Garden’s Harvest Day. Once a quarter, the organization cooks a free three-course meal featuring the produce they have grown. The event will be held on Sunday, Nov. 18.

“This quarter, Harvest Day is, for the first time, collaborating and combining with Sunday Supper, a tradition carried out by International Houses around the world, including ERC’s own I-House,” Bogisich said. “The sweet potatoes that are currently growing in the garden will be the star of the dinner. Produce that is not used in Harvest Day is for the students of ERC to use, and we encourage them to stop by and add some local fresh greenery to their meals. Our remaining food is donated to the Triton Food Pantry.”

For Shimasaki, Partika, and Bogisich, being part of community gardens have given them a chance to bond with their fellow gardeners, as well asto do something they love and feel fulfilled. It’s clear Shimasaki is passionate about the garden and the environment it offers for students to relax and feels proud of the work they’ve done.

“Me and the three other girls I work with have all said at some point that we keep coming to meetings because it’s an hour out of our week of not having to worry about school or stress about homework,” Shimasaki said. “It’s an hour that’s dedicated to doing stuff with our hands. We always say it’s very therapeutic when we’re digging in the dirt. It de-stresses us. I’m a senior now, so I have a lot of stuff going on, but it’s always this time where I’m like ‘Oh yes, I get to hang out with plants!’ And do stuff with my hands and get to see the fruits of our labor.”

Bogisich agreed. The garden, he said, provides an opportunity for students of a large variety of majors, and with a large variety of gardening skills, to interact with one another.

“The garden injects an opportunity to connect with nature … Whether you’re walking through it on the way to your building or spending two hours helping us weed and prune on a Saturday, it is always great for our mental health to see some green,” Bogisich said. “So much of our lives as students consists of reading, sitting through lecture, or working on a computer, so our gardening sessions are a great way to be outside in the fresh air, get your hands a little dirty, and connect with nature.”

Partika echoed their sentiments.

“I’ve met great and inspiring individuals at the garden, and I get to work alongside some of my best friends! It’s a relaxing and exciting setting to be in,” Partika said. “The garden provides many benefits to all majors, such as research experience, hands-on learning and building, leadership and project management experience, volunteer hours, and engagement with sustainable projects. For me, the greatest benefit is envisioning a sustainable future and seeing my ideas and the ideas of my colleagues come to life and truly help the environment and individuals.”

Since Shimasaki will graduate soon, her ultimate goal for Muir’s Community Garden is simply to see it continue. She earnestly encourages students to join the Community Garden Club to keep the garden thriving. She rediscovered its potential a few years ago, and doesn’t want to see it abandoned again. Shimasaki encourages students interested in joining to email [email protected].

“There are only four of us taking care of the garden,” Shimasaki said.  “Because it’s a pretty small garden, we can manage it pretty well, but now that I’m a senior, I’d like to see more people interested and willing to step into leadership roles. We don’t want what happened last time to happen again. It’s been really fun, and I just hope we can find other people who want to do it. I’d hate to leave my baby after all this hard work and come back later and find it abandoned.”

Bogisich also encourages any interested students to come to a meeting or gardening session at Ellie’s. Ellie’s Garden’s meetings for the fall quarter are Fridays at 6 p.m. in Europe Hall, first floor, while gardening sessions are Saturdays at noon and Mondays at 2 p.m.

Partika has big plans for the Roger’s Community Garden  in the future.

“We hope to incorporate a food forest into the garden, which will have a large variety of fruit trees fed using the fertilizer created from food waste inserted into the anaerobic digestion system at the garden,” Partika said. “I would love to see the garden collecting and harnessing the energy from all of the food waste on campus from HDH and Price Center, and using the biogas and organic fertilizer produced to help power and enrich the university landscape. I also see the garden expanding this food waste to food and fuel model to other gardens and restaurants in the San Diego community.”

Meanwhile, the students want to expand the amount of ERC ground they cover in Ellie’s Garden. Their original plot, the Victory Garden, expanded to three, and now they hope to create a fourth plot between the North America and Latin America Residence Halls. They also would like to expand the garden’s impact to other parts of campus.

“We do not have much interaction with the campus’ central administration,” Bogisich said.  “I can say that Ellie’s Garden feels wholeheartedly supported by the ERC Student Activities administration.  [Housing Dining Hospitality] has increased support recently, using celery from Ellie’s Garden in its gyudon bowls last spring quarter, marking the first time that our produce has been used in Cafe Ventanas. We look forward to working with them in the coming year as we try to acquire the fourth garden plot.”

Although Shimusaki has always loved gardening, but she emphasized that the community garden is open to students of all gardening levels.

“We have a wide range of gardening experience,” Shimasaki said.  “Some people are like ‘I grew up on a farm,’ and some are like ‘I’ve never touched a plant in my life. I killed my succulent. I gardened a little when I was a kid, but I rediscovered it when I got to college. It’s really fun and rewarding. You plant this tiny seed or put a seedling in the ground, and in two weeks, it’s way bigger, and you’re harvesting a vegetable from it. It’s cool.”

Art by Susan Sun.

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