Vegetables do not grow on grocery store shelves.
And they do not have to live in a dirty corner of your yard, either.
A student-led experiment flourishing in front of the Plant and Environmental Sciences Building is demonstrating that safe, tasty, organic vegetables can be easily grown and be lovely to look at, too.
"The concept is to get food closer to where people interact," said Margaret Lloyd, a graduate student in the Department of Plant Sciences who is spearheading the experiment. "The Student Farm is close, but not close enough. We want to create a space where vegetable gardening is beautiful and people can have fresh salad while at work."
Lloyd and fellow students landed an $1,800 Campus Sustainability Grant to fund the project they call the PES Salad Bowl Garden — a more interactive version than the edible garden that the Buildings and Grounds division put in two years ago in front of PES.
Originally, the students planned to cultivate two strips of turf next to the Buildings and Grounds garden. "But then, Buildings and Grounds said, 'Why don't you take over our plots, too, and we can collaborate,' " Lloyd said.
Collaboration has been the name of this organic garden's game, right from the start. The Student Farm donated the compost and the space in its organically certified greenhouse to raise the seeds. Buildings and Grounds helps with sprinklers, maintenance and overall support. Faculty offer their expertise and conducted soil tests and design review. Volunteers helped dig all 600 square feet of the planting beds and transplant the garden.
"It's biointensive," Lloyd said. "We're experimenting with techniques appropriate for small plots in unique growing niches around human habitation to achieve high yields and delicious produce, while contributing to the surrounding aesthetic."
How did they choose which crops to plant?
"Our idea was that everything we grow could be picked and eaten raw, like in a salad," Lloyd said. "And we wanted to grow vegetables people would want to eat."
So they conducted a survey. They put questionnaires in all the PES mailboxes with a long list of spring crops. They asked: Which do you like best?
Forty-seven people responded. Guess what food garnered the most votes.
"Followed by cilantro, spinach and carrots," Lloyd said.
Basil and arugula tied for fifth.
Carrots are a little finicky to grow, so they did not make the cut. Basil is a little too early.
So the young gardeners went with several varieties of peas and lettuce, arugula, baby bok choy, radishes, fennel, bunching onions, parsley, marjoram, thyme, pansies and other tasty treats.
"When we planted them, we paid close attention to colors, textures and patterns," said Lloyd, who is in the International Agricultural Development Graduate Group chaired by plant nutrition professor Patrick Brown. "We based our design on the French potager aesthetic which treats gardens like an art form, with careful attention to geometry and symmetry."
Students also paid attention to wild rabbits — by covering the garden with netting. With the first veggies ready for eating, the students pulled off the netting and invited the campus community to come for lunch on April 9.
'Smaller carbon footprint'
Since then, during the noon hour a couple of days a week, the students set up a table where people can rinse their freshly picked produce in buckets of water, and dry it in a salad spinner. A variety of dressings are available, along with salt and pepper. The cost? Free.
Susan Trigilio, personnel coordinator for the Department of Environmental Science and Policy, described her salads from the garden as "the freshest ever."
"I really enjoy the blend of different lettuces, herbs, flowers and other tender young greens."
The idea, Lloyd said, is to involve people directly in the planting and harvesting. "We want to offer a chance to integrate food-raising into the daily environment and routine, and for people to see a different way in which food can be grown," she said. "This food has a smaller carbon footprint than the grocery store or even farmers market, and can be done by anyone and anywhere."
Michael Wolff, also part of the International Agricultural Development Graduate Group, said: "It's important to show people what can be done quite easily in their own yards.
"And it's nice to see how beautiful it is. The edible flowers drive that point home."
What happens if people get a little too excited and pick the produce before it is ripe?
"We'll experiment with different signs and see what works best," Lloyd said. "That's part of the whole experiment. How do you communicate with people when it's not face-to-face and who may have never picked a vegetable?"
There is a lot going on in six small planters outside PES: soil science, sustainable agriculture, landscape architecture, human behavior.
But maybe it all boils down to this: Build the garden and they will come.
Diane Nelson is a writer for the Department of Plant Sciences. A different version of this article appeared in the department's spring 2008 Leaflet magazine. Dateline Associate Editor Dave Jones updated the article and added material for this version.
To read about Jones' visit to the PES Salad Bowl Garden, and his harvesting and salad-making, and a review of what he had for lunch, click here.