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Urban Gardens Sprout Up On IU Campus

Sustainable urban gardens have begun to pop up around the Indiana University campus, including near the on-campus residence of the University’s First Lady.

Urban Garden

Photo: Stan Jastrzebski

Popsicle sticks poke into the ground in the Bryan House urban garden, denoting which crops are planted where.

Stephanie Hopkins was born with a green thumb. Hopkins, 22, is an intern at the Indiana University Office of Sustainability.  As part of her internship, she is working on launching a campus garden at the Bryan House – on land donated by IU First Lady Laurie Burns McRobbie.  On one windy spring day, Hopkins showed McRobbie around her project garden while a handful of volunteers worked around them.

“This plot – we, just like the other plots, have put down leaves then shredded newspapers.  These are actually shredded, recycled [copies of the Indiana Daily Student],” Hopkins tells McRobbie.

“So it’s a real, all-student project,” the First Lady beams.

But Hopkins’ garden isn’t like every other organic garden: it’s also for research.   This is an organic pilot garden – a model – and its purpose is to practice new and improved principles of sustainable gardening in an urban setting.  And she’s getting a team together to establish those as well.

“We will bring different campus actors – so students, faculty, staff that either have academic interests that relate to food, that relate to gardening, that relate to urban ecology – and we’ll discuss making the process of growing food more institutionalized,” she said.

Hopkins is just one of many Bloomington locals who are spreading the word about organic gardening.  Heather Reynolds, an associate professor of biology at IU, attributes this organic boom to an increased public awareness for the harms of conventional agriculture.

“The pros of organic agriculture are it’s definitely healthier for the environment.  You’re avoiding a lot of contamination through toxic chemicals that outright kill organisms that pollute the air, water, and soil,” Reynolds said.

But the organic method is a long way away from overtaking conventional gardening.  It has long been known to decrease the post-harvest longevity of crops, and the fresh, untainted soil space necessary to start organic gardens is sparse in Bloomington.  But mainly, Reynolds said the perception that “bigger is better” holds it back the most.

“It’s often said that you produce a lot more food through the conventional method.  There’s this emphasis on producing more and more food.  Well, at some point we have to recognize limits and just realize that we need to produce a certain amount of food for a certain sustainable population size, and the best way to do that sustainably is organically,” she said.

Stephanie Solomon, the Garden and Nutrition Education Program Coordinator for Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard food pantry, said her organization relies on waste donations from many local eateries for their compost, which is necessary to maintain the organic gardens they oversee.

“We don’t use any chemical fertilizers or pesticides,” Solomon said.  “That means a crazy amount of composting: we use a lot of food waste from the food pantry, from SOMA, Laughing Planet, Village Deli, the Bakehouse, coffee grounds, banana peels.  All of it comes into our compost pile and then ends up feeding our soil.”

Although Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard encourages its donors to grow organically too, Solomon said organic sites provide only a fraction of their overall food donations, making it impractical for them to accept strictly organic waste.

“You know, organic and sustainably grown are the ideal, but local is, you know, arguably as important in different ways.  So we’re excited about whatever donations of fruits and vegetables that we get.”

One frequent donor of theirs is another IU organic garden near the intersection of 8th and Fess called SPROUTS, short for Students Producing Organics Under The Sun.  Vice President of Garden Operations Benji Fraser credits close relationships with non-profit food distributorships for helping to get their word out.

“Not only are we teaching students about environmental conservation and organic gardening and community involvement, but we’re also growing vegetables in the process and we grow a lot more vegetables than we can actually use,” he said.  “So right now, we donate a lot of them to the Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard and the Hoosier Hills Food Bank.

And Solomon could not be more grateful for the ways in which organic gardening has changed Bloomington.

“It’s the only way I know how to garden,” she said.

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