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Dec 24, 2012 09:52AM

Growing together: A group of students trade dorm life for a garden plot

by Jane Carlson
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Jane Carlson
Fall 2012 semester residents of Monmouth College's Garden House include, from left, Connor Shields, Will Terrill, Kaitlyn Pfau, Allison Razo and Carli Alvarado.
The Garden House at Monmouth College is just that — a two-story dwelling situated in front of the college's half-acre educational garden. But for the students who live in the house, the garden is much more than something growing in the backyard. These students have traded dorm life and cafeteria meal plans for the chance to live in the house and off the garden's harvest throughout the school year.

It's a lot of work, and not your average student's pastime, but the students are well aware of the rewards. "It's about food — where it comes from and how it tastes," says Kaitlyn Pfau of Naperville, Ill.

Inside the Garden House, amid the mismatched furniture and tie-dyed tapestries that typify many college abodes, there's a bookshelf in the living room filled with homemade tomato sauce, salsa, pear butter, barbecue sauce, pickles, and a giant jar of raw, organic honey.

A deep-freeze takes up a corner of the dining room beneath strings of bright red and yellow peppers hanging from the ceiling. The freezer bursts with everything from cabbage to acorn squash to roasted tomatoes to cantaloupe — all planted, nurtured, grown, picked, and preserved by the co-eds.

The Monmouth College Educational Garden began in 2010, under the leadership of English professor Craig Watson and other collaborating faculty members from various disciplines, and was funded by a start-up grant from the college and, later, a grant from the Environmental Protection Agency.

The impressive organic garden includes herbs, berries, vegetables, fruit trees, a grape arbor, wildflowers, and native plants; seven beehives; a solar-powered rainwater irrigation system; compost bins supplemented with scraps from the college cafeteria; and a 13-foot solar dehydrator named Helios.

Faculty have incorporated garden-related courses into the curriculum and established partnerships with local schools and organizations to educate the community about local food and sustainability.
But those getting their hands the most dirty with garden work are the students. In the spring of 2011, a group of students applied to live in a garden-themed house adjacent to the burgeoning garden. They wanted to live there, work in the garden and practice sustainability by eating what they grew themselves. Their proposal was approved, and thus began the cycle of students working summers to weed and water, and pick and preserve, so that the students who would be living in the house come fall would have food to eat throughout the year.

Student Will Terrill of Sandwich, Ill., did not work in the garden that first summer, but he was among the students who moved in the house in the fall of 2011 with a vow to eat a vegetarian diet comprised mainly of what had been preserved by the summer workers — a far cry from most college students' daily diets.

"We had our own learning curve," says Terrill. "Slowly we developed a network of people, books and websites that showed us a wealth of knowledge already in existence."

That knowledge carried over to the following spring's planting season, when the house's residents helped determine what would be grown for the next harvest. The garden was tended through the summer months of 2012 by Terrill, Pfau and fellow student George Burnette of Washington, Ill. Together, they lived in the house, preserved the summer harvest, and took on notable additional projects to benefit the operation such as building a greenhouse mostly from salvaged materials.

This academic year, Terrill and Pfau, along with Connor Shields of Naperville, Ill., Allison Razo of Fairbury, Ill., and Carli Alvarado of Chicago, are living in the Garden House. The students contribute $40 a month for bulk groceries to supplement the locally grown and preserved foods. They take turns cooking vegetarian meals for the group, churning out stir-fries, curries, pasta dishes, homemade breads and pizzas.

Pfau notes that the diversity of this year's harvest will make cooking and eating in the Garden House much more enjoyable. Last year, Pfau says, there was too much cabbage and too many radishes, and they struggled to work their way through gallons of pesto made from a bumper crop of basil.

This time around, they will be eating more eggplant, pole beans, okra and squash. The students also have learned to flash-freeze vegetables in smaller portions and are constantly honing their cooking and canning skills. Their tomato sauce, for instance, is better seasoned to their liking this year and their salsa is spicier.

The educational experience of the Garden House starts with gardening, continues with preserving and cooking, and extends to fellowship and outreach to the campus and the larger community. The students host a film and discussion series focused on sustainability, trade produce with other local gardeners, and always welcome visitors to the garden — and for dinner.

"When people eat with us here, they can taste what we are doing," says Terrill.

Because the students decide what to plant, they are deciding what they will eat many months later. When something goes wrong — such as the failure of most of the root crops this year — they vow to do it better next time, driven by the prospect of a more diverse and bountiful harvest to sustain them in the coming year.

They also keep detailed logs of their successes and failures in the garden and the kitchen so that future garden workers and Garden House residents can benefit from their experiences.

"We had a great deal to learn," says Terrill. "Most of us grew up with only a minor education in gardening or none at all. We were products of the industrial food system."

Now, they can talk shop about companion planting and they get excited about eggplant. Pfau considers cooking both a passion and a creative outlet, and Burnette is a self-professed food snob.
"I can't eat fast food anymore," he says. "It just makes me sick."

Jane Carlson is a frequent Radish contributor. For more information on the Monmouth College Education Garden, visit mceducationalgarden.weebly.com.

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