The thing about gardens

Steckle Farm plotThe thing about gardens is that they tend to grow. That’s exactly what happened to the Community Garden established in 2014 by St. Paul’s GreenHouse student Lexi Salt (now the GreenHouse Program Coordinator) – it has expanded to a second location at the Steckle Heritage Farm in Kitchener, under the leadership of fourth-year Kinesiology student Samantha Johns.

Samantha was running a local food business as part of her Enterprise Co-op experience when she met Lexi, and was brought on to manage the small garden plot at St. Paul’s.

Students picking produce in fieldAt around the same time that this plot was being developed, Steckle’s executive director, Krista Cressman-Buck, heard about an initiative in which an unused acre of land was offered to an individual starting up a market garden as an incubator.

“We thought this was a great idea,” says Krista. Staff at Steckle who heard about GreenHouse and the Community Garden (which was selling produce to food service corporation Chartwells to be used in meals at St. Paul’s) were eager to offer surplus land to GreenHouse.

“We liked the idea that the produce goes back to the residents and, as our main directive is education, it was a great opportunity to support local educational endeavours,” says Krista. “Having students work the land shows people who visit our farm that it is possible to create a farm in the city. It encourages people to think differently.”

Jar of picklesNoting that land is expensive and often hard to find, Krista adds that Steckle has offered the quarter-acre plot at no charge. Steckle also allowed Samantha to turn surplus produce into pickles and preserves in their industrial kitchen, with the preserved food being sold alongside fresh produce at a weekly campus farmers market.

The partnership began in January 2015, which gave Samantha three months to get organized before growing season began. A Waterloo Student Endowment Fund grant offered enough funds to pay a stipend to a student in the spring and fall terms.

St. Paul’s Residence and Community Life Manager Steve Prentice is the staff supervisor for GreenHouse projects that directly involve the St. Paul’s student community. “One challenge with having only the plot on campus was that it was relatively small, so while Chartwells used the vegetables, it was hard to be able to say this soup or salad was from the community garden,” he says.

Student with fresh-picked strawberries

“Working with Steckle has changed how the garden is able to produce and market their produce. On our recent move-in day, our chef-manager Darryl Bonsteel, who is very supportive of the gardens, got a standing ovation from new students when he told them he had just received a harvest of 100 pounds of carrots from the garden. The expansion means the garden is a more sustainable business option with opportunity for more students to get involved.”

This fall, as Samantha returns to classes, she will continue to set up the infrastructure for next year’s garden while two new students will take over the harvest of the Steckle garden.

Steve, who has learned to eat more kale as a result of this initiative, talks about how the gardens offer a tangible model of what St. Paul’s, and especially GreenHouse, is about.

“When we tour students through St. Paul’s, we like to show off the wing that looks out on the community garden and we use the garden as an entry point to talk about how amazing our students are and what they can achieve. We let people know that this is a student garden created by students. This is just one example and there will be more and more.”

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