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Senior Thesis Sprouts Gardening Book

By Cheryl Dorschner Article published July 26, 2005

Beret Halverson
Beret Halverson '02 (right) wrote a thesis that a local gardening maven used to create a book celebrating community gardeners. She's shown here with gardener and musician Jenni Johnson. (Photo: Jim Flint)

Beret Halverson’s interest in plants took root early, when she began helping out in her grandmother’s Montana garden during childhood summer vacations. So when it came time for the 2002 environmental studies graduate and ethnobotany specialist to find a thesis topic, it was natural to mesh her interests in culture and horticulture for an ambitious look at community gardeners.

The student surveyed 100 Burlington-area gardeners in 2001 about their methods, preferences and the relationship between their cultural backgrounds and horticultural practices. After the survey, she interviewed 20 of her subjects face-to-face, tape-recording their stories. Those stories caught the ear of Jim Flint G'84, executive director of the nonprofit group Friends of Burlington Gardens.

“Even in their raw state, the tapes and transcripts revealed some very interesting dialogue,” observes Flint. “Since the interviews were done in the winter and early spring, it was a bit like peeling an onion for Beret to work through the layers of the interviewees' experiences and draw out the fine details of their gardening and cultural history.”

Impressed with the thesis — and Halverson — Flint began collaborating with her to create Patchwork: Stories of Gardens and Community, a book with vignettes of 10 Burlington gardeners published earlier this year. Halverson provided the research and interviews, Flint did the photography, editing and design. The book was released this spring, and its photography is on exhibit at the Fletcher Free Library through July 31. The show will move to Barnes & Noble in South Burlington for the month of August.

Cultivating culture
Halverson’s project might have been grounded in journalism, but its meaning extends into scholarship.

“Beret's research on community gardeners in Burlington is an important contribution toward understanding the wealth of cultural knowledge, social values and horticultural customs that bring together Burlington's diverse community of gardeners,” says Jeanne Shea, an associate professor of anthropology who, along with Katherine Anderson, lecturer of environmental studies, advised Halverson on the project.

Halverson met Flint in 2001 just as he launched the nonprofit community gardens group and she had returned from taking courses at the University of Hawaii in Honolulu. As part of an assignment, she had interviewed several community gardeners in Hawaii.

“I was amazed at the diverse stories that were shared. This got me interested in the oral histories of gardeners. It also got me thinking about how culture is transmitted in gardening practices. Eventually it led to the development of this project in Burlington,” she recalls.

Halverson drew on Flint’s community connection as she pursued the survey and interview phases of her thesis research. Inspired by Newbery-award-winning author Paul Fleischman’s book Seedfolks, a short novel about an urban neighborhood’s transformation through gardening, Flint wanted a local portrait of gardening’s diversity and reach. So he culled Halverson’s interviewees to represent a mix of Burlington area gardens, gardeners and motivations.

Among histories included in the book are three gardeners with ties to UVM. Clem Holden ’45, who gardens with his wife, Sylvia ’51, is profiled — the book explains how the couple often puts up more than 200 jars and freezer bags of garden vegetables each year. English Professor Huck Gutman’s tomatoes have been winning blue ribbons at the local fair since 1973 when he rented a plot behind the admissions building.

Since her graduation three years ago, Halverson has traveled extensively, spending time in Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Bali, New Zealand and South India, but her interest in local gardening has only deepened with all that travel. “Community gardens are part of people's lives,” she says. “If they didn't exist an important part of our connection to the land, our food and each other would be lost.”