On the south end of campus behind the Eccles Learning Living Center is the Southern Utah University Community Garden, where students both learn about sustainability in gardening and also collect a healthy source of fruits and vegetables for free.
From March to November during what is known among gardeners as the “growing season,” members of the SUU Community Garden club gather weekly and tend to a variety of plants such as cucumbers, tomatoes, lettuce and even numerous fruit trees.
In 2018, a dilapidated house stood on the land that is now the community garden. After SUU bought the property, Facilities Management chose to knock the house down because it had “outlived its useful life” according to Tiger Funk, the assistant vice president of Facilities Management.
What was left behind was an empty lot with ample sun exposure and a water spout.
During this time, the Sustainability Club approached Funk with an idea of starting a community garden, asking his assistance in finding a space and money to start the project.
Funk recognized that the garden could play a role in SUU’s commitment to sustainability practices and provide a source of locally grown food for students.
“My department is very interested in supporting student-driven initiatives, so this was a great opportunity for Facilities Management,” Funk said. “I [committed] to provide a location and funding that would serve as the… initial investment to purchase tools and supplies.”
Funk decided because of its on-campus location and water source, the empty lot would be the perfect spot for the garden. Facilities Management then provided raised beds, wood chips, soil and a storage container to store the supplies.
With a location and the necessary materials, the Sustainability Club planted a garden. However, running it was such a large workload that it broke off from the Sustainability Club in January 2020 and became its own club: the SUU Community Garden.
The club dedicates themselves to their mission statement, which is: “To organize student volunteers and operate a community garden on campus. We also want to promote sustainable garden practices, self-sufficiency, and learning through community engagement.”
SUU students Ellie Larkin and Lorenzo Ibarra currently run the SUU Community Garden. According to Larkin, the best part of the club is that it helps her better focus on her sustainability habits, saying that, “gardening just makes you be mindful about your usage of plants.”
As a part of these sustainability habits, the club provides participants with sustainably produced food. Because the food is grown on a small scale and doesn’t have to travel to reach the consumer, its production does not cause as many greenhouse gas emissions or plastic waste as the food sold at the grocery store.
The club also has a compost, which helps to reduce food waste. Composting is a process in which food and plant waste decompose into a soil-like substance that is high in plant nutrients. The compost can then be used in the community garden to encourage fast and healthy plant growth.
Larkin is working with a group of biology students to develop an efficient composting system for the garden. She hopes that her composting project will eventually help reduce food waste across campus as a whole.
“I’m going to try to get it set up with Chartwells, the food service, and see if they’re willing to compost, because I think that would be… an awesome way to get rid of waste from them and help the garden,” Larkin said.
Students are welcome to contribute to the club’s current compost piles, which are located onsite. However, Larkin warned that certain food products cannot go in the compost pile, or the SUU Community Garden club members will have to spend time picking them out.
Meat and dairy products, as well as the plastic stickers on fruit, will not break down correctly and should not be thrown into the pile. If students want to contribute, Larkin recommends spending some time reading online resources that give more information about what to include and what to leave out of a compost pile.
“I have this little bucket that I just fill up at home and take it over [to the garden],” Larkin said. “Eventually I would love if everyone could do that at the school.”
In addition to promoting sustainability practices, the garden provides students with produce for free. Students are able to eat healthy without having to worry about the price tag of fresh fruits and vegetables at the grocery store.
According to a study published in the Journal of Nutrition and Human Health, the average college student tends to have poor eating habits, selecting food for “convenience, taste, time, and price rather than nutritional values.”
The club combats this trend by providing fruits and vegetables for students. Larkin says she focuses on planting mostly edible foods for this purpose.
The Sustainability Club also does weekly live videos on Instagram where they show how to cook different plant-based meals. This way, students aren’t only provided with a source of fresh fruits and vegetables, but they are also shown ways to cook them.
The garden produces plenty of food for those involved with the club. In fact, according to Larkin, the garden produced so much food last year that there weren’t enough club members to consume it all.
The club sold produce at Cedar City’s farmers market last fall, but even that wasn’t enough to completely diminish the excess. Larkin hopes to expand club membership and participation this year to not only continue cultivating a successful garden, but also to have more people to eat what is grown.
To help make the garden a fun atmosphere for students, Larkin and Ibarra try to foster a more casual club environment where those who come feel comfortable.
On Tuesdays when members meet at the garden, Larkin mentioned that while many students do help with the garden tasks, such as weeding and thinning the garden beds or picking ripe fruits and vegetables, many other people simply come to hang out and enjoy the friendly atmosphere.
Larkin emphasized that students interested in joining the club can participate as little or as much as they want. The club has already begun meeting for the semester to plan and prepare for the growing season.
Story by: Lainey Cartwright
Photos courtesy of the SUU Community Garden