A few months ago, sophomore Bryan Yates had never before seen or tasted okra.
By the end of summer, he was an expert not only on okra but also in organic gardening, harvesting produce and using it to prepare meals.
Yates became the first Belmont Community Garden intern this year as part of an effort to strengthen ties between the University and the Dismas House, a nonprofit organization that provides transitional housing and support to former convicts. He worked in Belmont’s garden daily and took its organic tomatoes, onions, okra, kale, squash, zucchini and cucumbers to Dismas House in exchange for room and board there.
“This summer internship was about taking care of the Belmont Community Garden, a small garden at the Dismas House and creating and growing relationships with the guys there,” said Yates, who is studying audio engineering and technology. “It was kind of intimidating at first, but I lived on a farm in the past so I knew a little about it. It was a really great experience, and I still go back (to Dismas House) to visit and have dinner with them.”
Chemistry Professor Kimberlee Daus proposed a Belmont garden on a vacant lot with a letter to administrators in 2008. Once approved, her honors analytics class did chemistry tests on soil, researched what types of plants would grow there and developed plans for the garden. A first-year seminar class built raised beds and did initial planting in 2009.
“What we have built on is the idea of community sharing and partnership and for students to learn about food production, sustainability and in a creative learning environment that is interactive,” said Adjunct Professor Charmion Gustke. Students in Gustke’s first-year service learning class must spend at least five hours in the garden and students in her English 1010 class prepare meals at the Dismas House using harvest produce from Belmont’s garden.
The garden has received much support from student group SLOW Food Belmont, which organizes weekend weeding and watering, with sophomore Lee McGill volunteering as garden manager.
Crops are planted year around. About 20 students planted radishes, red and green Swiss chard, spinach, broccoli and garlic on the first fall work day Sept. 24. Students fenced in the garden last year, and they plan to add a tool shed this year. They will plant lettuces, greens, squashes, onions and sweet potatoes in the winter.
Dozens of students, staff and faculty are involved in the Belmont Community Garden on Compton Avenue as part of the University’s commitment to the “Belmont Goes Green” campaign. Most of the produce is donated to Dismas House to supplement the meals of former prisoners transitioning back into society. Volunteers are allowed to take only what their arms can carry home for dinner.
“What has happened and what I have been very thankful to see is that students are taking ownership of the garden, and they are choosing which vegetables to plant, looking consciously at what grows in this area and what would be most beneficial for the recipients of the produce,” Daus said. “The excitement that they show proves that this is a vital part of our community.”