The Heritage Garden at Elmhurst College is having its biggest season ever.
The sustainably farmed, organic garden underwent a major expansion this year, and now is quadruple the size of when it first started. At the same time, the Heritage Garden has significantly expanded what it does: Not only is it a source of organic food for the campus and local food banks, it also has become a research laboratory and a service learning experience for students at the College.
Earlier this summer the garden spread its reach even further, providing a hands-on introduction to sustainable gardening to more than a dozen middle school students from the Mercy Home for Boys and Girls, a therapeutic residential home in Chicago for children in crisis. The Mercy Home students learned about and worked in the Heritage Garden as part of the “Dream, Believe, Achieve!” summer program, a three-day academic experience that aims to spark college ambitions among the kids who attend.
The students helped with weeding and composting, planted seeds and picked produce to take back to Mercy Home. But the garden provided more than just an opportunity to work in the soil.
“We hoped that the students would learn about the social and ecological importance of gardens,” said Theresa Robinson, an associate professor of education at Elmhurst College and one of the faculty members who led the Mercy Home program. “Although the students are mostly from urban environments and had little experience with organic gardens, we wanted them to be able to see the relevance of a garden in their lives. For example, we asked them how is a seed like a dream, wanting the students to make connections between how a seed grows and develops with care over time, and their own goals and dreams.”
At 4,000 square feet, the Heritage Garden is four times larger this year than when it first started only three years ago. Tended by Elmhurst College students, faculty and staff volunteers, the garden is growing rhubarb, asparagus, onions, garlic, horseradish, carrots, kohlrabi, rutabagas, cabbages, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, cantaloupe, potatoes, three types of kale and many kinds of lettuce.
The garden features some of the “heritage” crops found on the College’s farm in 1871, when German-American students at the school, then a proseminary, grew their own food. One goal of the Heritage Garden is to revive the tradition of Elmhurst students producing some of their own food.
It’s a year-round experience for the students, who take part in planning, preparing and planting the garden in the spring; planting, weeding and watering the garden during the summer and early fall; and planting, harvesting and delivering produce in the fall.
Throughout the experience, students learn about the history of the useful garden, various gardening techniques, varieties of vegetables and their uses, the role of animals in the garden, and record-keeping. They also learn about the value of locally grown, organic vegetables and herbs.
“Working outside is a rare treat for many students, and some have commented on the freedom of being in the fresh air,” said Elmhurst College Professor Emeritus Les Caltvedt, who guides and instructs the student volunteers. “They also are impressed with the growth from week to week, and we all take aesthetic pleasure in watching the ensemble of the plants.”
He added that some students have come to appreciate the taste of freshly picked produce, and have changed their eating habits as a result.
The garden also has served as a living laboratory for some Elmhurst students. Heather Miller, a biology major who graduated this past spring, worked with Associate Professor of Biology Tamara Marsh to investigate the role of several kinds of soil bacteria in the success of combined plantings of beans and corn, two crops that are believed to benefit from the presence of the other. Miller presented her findings at a regional honors biology conference and at Elmhurst College’s Research and Performance Showcase.
Ken Johnson, an early supporter of the garden who also heads the Elmhurst College Sustainability Committee, says the next goal is to make sure more people, on campus and off, come to know about everything the garden has to offer.
“The Heritage Garden has grown so much in the last few years, not only in terms of its physical size and the variety of things we plant there but also, more importantly, in the number of ways it serves our students and community,” he said. “We’re really having a banner year.”