In summer months, countless people cradle comically large watermelons without ever considering the fruit’s formative days. When Natural Resourses & Environment masters student Allyson Green described the process of watching a watermelon develop, she unconsciously spread her arms out like the tendrils of a watermelon’s vines.
“I had no idea what a watermelon looked like growing,” Green said. “To watch this little, tiny plant go from looking like it was about to die, and all of a sudden you had these beautiful flowers and this tiny little watermelon growing on it.
“A little bit of hard work and some great things that have nothing to do with us are happening to make that little watermelon grow.”
Many students may think of gardening as an activity reserved for the elderly, whittling away their twilight years, which compels the question: Do University students see the merit of diving into the dirt; shovel and watering can in hand?
Business junior Yahya Syed takes classes right across from the University’s Cultivating Community garden, but says he’s never heard of it before.
“I wouldn’t say I notice anything at school,” Syed said. “If there are flowers, it makes the place look nice but that’s about it.”
Syed described the Nichols Arboretum as “amazing” and said he’s always enjoyed his mother’s garden. Yet he added that federal money shouldn’t be used to fund gardening unless it’s research related, referring to federal funds that went toward sustaining heirloom peonies at the Arboretum and Botanical Gardens in the summer of 2011. He added that the University shouldn’t be investing a significant amount of money on gardening for “aesthetics” alone.
But according to some, gardening can have artistic and practical merits that might justify why the ‘U’ allots resources to gardening and researching horticulture.
LSA junior Ali Imam says he believes urban farming is an important initiative that the University should continue to focus on in order to create a more sustainable food system.
“Green is good,” he said.
No matter what perceivable benefits might come from gardening, several students agreed that there is natural artistry inherent to gardening. With some nurturing, a garden can become a tangible work of public art.
Located between the apocalyptic sounds of East Quad’s renovation and frat houses littered with post-game Solo cups is the Cultivating Community garden, a patch of land outside of the Ginsberg Center. It overflows with sunflowers and greenery as tall as the students who likely walk past every day without giving it a second glance.
Yet students dedicated to Cultivating Community, a student organization on campus, are willing to get their hands a little dirty. They maintain a seemingly constant burst of color and natural artistry.
The group fosters a public space that beautifies a little corner of Ann Arbor while also demonstrating and supporting local gardening efforts that have tangible benefits for individuals and the collective public space.
A recent addition to the Cultivating Community family, Green spent the summer as an intern at the Arb, where as a program coordinator, she helped oversee all activities around the gardens. She organized workshops and field trips for those who were curious about gardening and growing their own food.
As the name suggests, Cultivating Community doesn’t just produce vegetables and flowers. Students from across the University come together to create their garden, a process that begets the group’s other main goal: outreach in Ann Arbor.
“We organized workshops and fieldtrips for people who just wanted to learn more about how to garden, how to eat locally, what to do with food from the garden,” Green said.
Cultivating Community hosts open workdays where Ann Arbor residents can cultivate gardening skills, such as composting, on a micro level. And, if traditional gardening doesn’t suit your fancy, Green said everyone is encouraged to try some fresh raspberries straight from the vine.
In addition to their work in Ann Arbor, Cultivating Community has partnerships with the Detroit non-profit Focus Hope and the Summer in the City’s community service program, which brings children from the metro Detroit suburbs to volunteer in the city.
Last summer, Cultivating Community helped run a community garden in Detroit that allowed local kids to tend their own garden plots. Green explained that for many of these kids, fresh produce isn’t readily affordable. Cultivating their own gardens and growing produce helped teach participants the benefits of fresh food.
“By having this garden … the kids can learn where this food comes from and why (they) should eat it, why (they) should want to grow it,” Green said.
Though Green said she wasn’t sure if the plants are still being cared for since the summer ended, she recalled one boy who carefully monitored his creation.
“There are a few who were keen on having their own plant,” Green said. “One kid had some, I think it was okra, that he was watching grow, and maybe some pumpkins. So every week he’d come back and just look at his plants and take care of them.”
Growing Hope in Ypsilanti
LSA sophomore Shaina Shetty says gardening can change lives. As a researcher at Growing Hope in Ypsilanti last summer — a non-profit devoted to spreading awareness about gardening and healthy food — she documented how gardens can elevate a neighborhood’s aesthetic and help generate an interest in nutrition.
“It starts spreading through observation, when you see someone in your neighborhood gardening,” Shetty said. “We’d plant a garden in one house and the house next door would see it and say, ‘Hey, this is interesting, let’s do this.’ ”
If families qualify for the program, Growing Hope volunteers help them set up a personal garden. For the first year families are required to produce certain food, but after a year, what they grow is up to them. Gardens that began as one raised-produce bed would soon turn into full-blown gardens that families could tend to until their entire lawn was covered in food and flowers.
“Some of these gardens are gorgeous … they are definitely pieces of art in some cases,” Shetty said.
Not only could families that wouldn’t ordinarily have access to fresh food now grow their own, but according to Shetty, the artistic beauty of the gardens makes neighbors more likely to invest in their neighborhoods.
“Community gardening works as a whole, everyone in the neighborhood is working on it. If you’re not working on it your mom is working on it, or your friend and so there’s a lot of potential,” Shetty said. “It’s been a community building effort … people are less likely to destroy something that’s already so beautiful.”
Growing Hope pulls many volunteers and interns from the community in which they work. Shetty saw how children who began by helping out in their family gardens would soon commit to helping their neighbors start their own sustainable gardens with the aid of Growing Hope.
She discussed one woman she knew who, before starting her garden, said she had a low iron count. By the end of the summer she attributed her normal iron count to the food she’d been eating from her garden.
“I’ve always just seen eating food as a thing you do, I’ve never really given thought to it,” she said. “Like eating fruits and vegetables, I took it for granted in my household, and for some people that’s not normal,” Shetty said.
An ever-changing landscape
Though students like Syed may denounce the craft of gardening, those who are in groups such as Growing Hope and Cultivating Community work throughout the year to educate people on how practical and fruitful the practice can be.
“Yes, we have a lot of peonies because they look cool, but there’s also just a lot of research that goes into that and there’s a heritage behind it too,” Green said of the peonies that annually blanket the Arb in a sea of purple and pink. “It’s more than just looking at flowers. It’s education, and community outreach, and just giving people a place to rest and re-collect themselves and find peace.”
From using deconstructed milk cartons to grow plants in Ann Arbor, to watching children become invested in their health in Detroit, to creating beautiful landscapes and neighborhoods in Ypsilanti through gardening, it appears that gardening has multiple functions.
“Landscapes change overtime,” Green said. “Humans change them, they change on their own. Here’s a chance to see it happening.”