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Savoring an ‘edible’ landscape

By Dave Jones on October 13, 2006 in University

The next time you think the landscaping looks good enough to eat, go ahead and try some.

But only if you happen to be in front of the Plant and Environmental Sciences Building. That is where the grounds division is tending a half-dozen planting beds filled with edibles — yours for the taking.

The summer crop comprised tomatoes, bell peppers and sage. All that is gone now, replaced by a winter crop of Swiss chard, bulls blood beets and early Stockton red onions. The garden also features four citrus trees: lemons, oranges and blood oranges.

This is not a student project. This garden is courtesy of the Buildings and Grounds Division, and one reason that the division recently won a national award from the Professional Grounds Management Society. The Grand Award recognizes UC Davis' innovative approaches.

Like edible landscaping. "The idea is, people can come along and pick something to eat — and they do it all the time," said Cary Avery, one of two grounds superintendents.

The people who work and study in Plant and Environmental Sciences know all about the free produce. In fact, when they see the "harvest" under way, they often head straight to the front of the building to pick up something for lunch or dinner.

Groundskeepers are happy to tell other people: "Take something if you like."

Joe Louis Smith is one of those grounds-keepers. He said he particularly liked this summer's tomatoes, which he preferred to pick when they were green. "I fry 'em with corn meal and olive oil," he said, "and you gotta have hot sauce, too."

The first crop went in last winter, and consisted of chard, kale, lettuce and onions. Turns out the campus's rabbits liked the lettuce a little too much, so this winter, no lettuce.

The chard is back now in all its green, purple and yellow glory. "People really liked the color (last winter)," grounds-keeper Mike Griffith said.

Jim Kami, a staff research associate who works in the Plant and Environmental Sciences Building, said he was sorry to see the summer sage crop pulled from the ground.

"I had been picking little bits and pieces of it," he said. "It goes great on steak."

The tomato crop went fast. "I think people took them before I got there," said Stephanie Glitsch-Wu, faculty personnel assistant in the Department of Land, Air and Water Resources.

Bette Lerol, an administrative assistant in the plant sciences department, solved that problem by putting a sticker on a tomato, a sticker with her name on it. The tomato grew, sticker and all, into a palm-sized piece of fruit, red and ripe.

One day, Lerol plucked her tomato, sliced it, added some salt and pepper, and had it with her lunch. "Very tasty," she said.

Elias Mbvukuta, a garden specialist with the grounds unit, said a dual-purpose garden makes perfect sense. "It's something pretty that can also be eaten. Being African, we do this all the time," said Mbvukuta, who is from Malawi.

Sal Genito, director of the Buildings and Grounds Division, said his plan is to develop more thematic gardens, edible and nonedible, like the Garden of Ladyes at Voorhies Hall, which houses the Department of English. The "ladyes" are English roses named after characters in English literature, such as Jane Austen, Wise Portia and Sweet Juliet. "In springtime this garden is spectacular."

"At a university, we can all be students, learning as we walk from place to place," he added, listing such possible garden themes as textile plants and early American plants.

Genito said he believes landscaping should be something that people can see, touch, smell and taste.

The veggie and herb garden, he said, is a test site for a bigger project to come: edible landscaping all around the Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science, now under construction at the university's south entry.

Genito is mindful, though, that people like flowers, too, and he said there is room for some of everything on campus.

That should make Glitsch-Wu happy. The veggie-herb garden occupies planting beds that formerly held lavender. "I liked the smell; it was very inviting," she said.

Groundskeepers said the lavender was not doing well, because of poor drainage. Also, Genito said, gardeners must frequently remove old growth from the plants, making them more expensive to maintain, compared with vegetables and herbs.

Despite missing the lavender, Glitsch-Wu is giving the new garden a chance. For dinner one night this summer, the garden provided one of the main ingredients for her family's dinner: stuffed bell peppers.

The grounds division Web site includes a Garden of Ladyes section with photos:

Media contact(s)

Dave Jones, Dateline, 530-752-6556,