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Challenges in Maintaining Lesley’s Urban Garden

The thud of a spade, the crisp, damp scent of freshly sewn earth wafting through the air, relentless honking from a tide of passing car, could urban gardening be the wave of the future? With ever expanding cities and with it a fascination in organic, non-gmo vegetables, city slickers seem to be on two ends of a spectrum. On the one hand they desire a city life, with all the convenience of public transport and office jobs. But on the other, there is flourishing demand for home grown vegetables guaranteed not to be coated with pesticides or genetically altered. Growing vegetables and herbs is the main function of the Lesley Urban Garden located on Doble campus.

This student run garden, composed of ten raised beds, is utilized to grow vegetables for classes run to educate students about plants and urban farming. While the garden does have a crop yield its care is,unfortunately, sporadic at best. The lack of attention given to the Lesley Urban Garden is not from a lack of enthusiasm.  “One of the big problems is that there is no one in charge from semester to semester,” explains Sam Flavin, contributor to and part-time caretaker of the garden. Flavin along with his classmates from the Science and Ethics of Food and Farm were able plant and maintain vegetables throughout the Fall semester. With so many students caring and cultivating those ten beds, the garden was able to thrive.  But here’s the catch:  the class is only offered during the Fall semester. Throughout the winter session, spring semester, and summer break there is no consistent caretaker.

The Science of Food and Ethics was started by Professor Susan Rauchwerk as a second level science course; however, the true heroes of the garden were the student volunteers from LCAL (Lesley’s Center for the Adult Learner) who worked throughout the summer semester.  Rauchwerk comments that these LCAL students were the ones who built the garden, which started as a 4’x 4′ and is now closer to 8’x 12.’  Every aspect of the garden has come from donations:   from the work to the materials such as compost, bricks, seeds, even the rain barrel.  “The garden is in desperate need of an overhaul” says Flavin.

This statement has been true throughout the history of the garden. Rauchwerk pointed out that from the very beginning the garden has been a work in progress. First, it was discovered that lead paint was seeping into the beds; it comes from the lead paint from the dorm next to the garden.  As Rauchwerk explains, “Although lead paint was banned in 1978, prior to that, it was very common.  Thus, the lead got into the soil by flakes of paint falling on the ground.  The closer to the house, the higher the lead content.  The house has since been painted with non-lead paint, but since lead is such a heavy metal, it does not wash or leach away, and is still in the soil.”  The beds, built years ago, require a massive update; but most of the LCAL volunteers have since graduated.

Lead in the soil is also a problem in many urban areas, making it necessary for raised beds to be built in urban gardens. The beds provide separation from the potentially toxic earth they are resting on. To truly protect the plants, a raised bed must be at least 12 – 18 inches from the ground, and contain a root barrier or soil cloth.  Lesley’s adult learner volunteers built some raised beds years ago, but new ones are now needed and the dedicated volunteers who built them have long since graduated.  And as Sam Flavin point out, Lesley Urban Garden’s beds are a mere 6 inches off the ground and the soil cloth is thoroughly damaged.

Flavin hopes to redesign and rebuild the garden to meet this standard and reach new heights, beginning with the demolition of the current raised beds. If more money were to be allocated towards the Lesley Urban Garden, students and volunteers would be able to build new beds with the proper height specifications, using quality lumber designed to withstand weather and gardening wear and tear.

Flavin’s dream of redesigning the layout, creating larger spaces to allow farm equipment and a grounds manager to work, could come to fruition if more funding could be allocated.  This would enable the garden to work with the school on goals such as composting the food waste in a more effective way, and one day, providing us with fresh vegetables.

The university composts all of its food waste, since it is mandatory for any business in Cambridge that produces as much food waste as we do.  The food waste is taken to a farm on the north shore; the compost that we got for the raised beds was our own composted food waste from that farm.  The garden composter is primarily for the plants in the garden.  Ours uses a very common backyard compost design, given out for free or as a discount from the town.  But without a constant supervisor, and regular volunteers, it remains difficult to maintain the stability the garden needs.

The Lesley Urban Garden was started as a learning experience for students to understand agriculture and growing plants from the ground up. It has been lovingly cared for by a handful of dedicated workers. Through the continuation of classes such as the Science and Ethics of Food and Farming, along with some additional volunteers, and a little more financial help from Lesley, this amazing experience will not only continue; it will benefit even more members of the Lesley community.

photo by Shazia Maqbool Khan

1 Response »

  1. Thank you, Hadley, for a very informative article!

    A note:
    *The Lesley Urban Farm (aka Lesley Urban Garden) is located next to Parking Lot B on the Doble Campus. Feel free to stop by and check it out : )

    And a few of corrections:
    *”The Science and Ethics of Food & Farming” course was started by Professor Aileen Bellwood. It is a 3 credit course that was offered for the first time in fall 2017. It is being offered next fall (fall 2018) as well. We need more students to register for it!

    *Professor Susan Rauchwerk started a class called “The Science & Ethics of Gardening”. It was a two-semester course that was offered in the fall and spring (1 ½ credits each semester).

    * Nataliya Ryzhenko is currently the (very part-time) manager of the Lesley Urban Farm. She is, technically speaking, in charge of the farm from semester to semester. We are hoping that Lesley Urban Farm manager will grow into a full-time position. As the article points out, the farm is in desperate need of an overhaul and there is way too much one very-part-time-staff-person to do.

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