Garden projects highlight undergrad service-learning

Anna Herman puts her hands down into the dirt and pulls out a large clump of grass. Behind an old motel on Shelburne Road, she and a crew of about twenty UVM students from professor Dan Baker’s project planning course are chopping through the sod, laying out wood-chip paths, selecting pea and carrot seeds, and turning over a rectangle of soil about the size of a tennis court.

They’re making a community garden -- and trying something new.

"This garden may the first model of its kind in the country," says Herman, UVM class of 2012, who took Baker's course several years ago -- and is now a staff person for the Champlain Housing Trust. This garden will serve the residents of Harbor Place, temporary housing for homeless people.

“We have people who've been here for several months, and we have people who are here for just one night,” Herman says. “That’s why this model of community gardening is completely different. Our guests often don’t know what tomorrow will bring or where they’ll be staying the next night, so the whole idea is to bring healthy food to the residents. The staff will have harvested food in the office -- and people can come out here whenever they want and eat something fresh.”

The UVM students spent the semester planning how to reclaim an overgrown site here at Harbor Place, a former Econo Lodge that has, itself, been reclaimed by the Champlain Housing Trust.

“The students designed a garden to meet the needs of this population,” explains Dan Baker, a researcher in UVM’s Department of Community Development and Applied Economics, often called CDAE. “The crops that will be grown largely don't have to be cooked. They can be eaten raw since a lot of the rooms here don't have kitchens. And we're trying to find vegetables that kids would like.

"We're going to plant high-value foods that are wanted by the folks that live here,” Baker says, “like mesclun and baby lettuce.”

in gardenProfessor Dan Baker selects seeds while UVM geography major Taylor Hancock '16, gets a sign ready for the snow peas. “There once was a garden here,” Hancock says, “but it was covered with brush and grass. We’re bringing it back, making it bigger.”

This work at Harbor Place was just one of many efforts in A Day in the Dirt, held on April 30, which had more than one hundred UVM students out working in some dozen community gardens all over Burlington and beyond—building fences, raising raised beds, planting peas, and, yes, getting dirty hauling dirt.


The whole effort was led by Jess Hyman G’09, executive director of the Vermont Community Garden Network. “In total, we had about three hundred volunteers out this year,” Hyman says. “It engages people of all ages in positive activities that boost our local food system and strengthen community.”

Five UVM service-learning courses led projects over the weekend, including seniors in a capstone course in Public Communication who worked closely with Hyman over the semester to plan the Day in the Dirt; student leaders from this course have played a key role in organizing the event since it started in 2013. “This is what service-learning means,” says Susan Munkres, who leads UVM’s office of Community-University Partnerships & Service Learning (CUPS), “students employing the skills they're gaining on behalf of community partners or contributing to the public good through their courses.”

“At the foundation, students help by, yes, digging the dirt,” Munkres says, “but service-learning goes far beyond providing volunteer labor to worthwhile events. There’s sometimes a misconception about that,” Munkres says. As students progress in service-learning courses, they can, for example, “become consultants, design publications, or plan marketing efforts,” she says, “and at the highest level, advanced students conceive and lead projects over multiple years on behalf of community partners.”

Jess Hyman agrees. “The students working in solidarity with Vermont Community Garden Network and other community organizations are doing projects that have real-world implications. It isn't just a labor pool -- and it isn’t just an academic exercise,” she said. “Service-learning has a huge impact in the community.” Which helps explain why 99 service-learning courses were offered this year at UVM, involving more than 1,700 undergraduate students.

Students from several service-learning classes in UVM’s Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources were also out in force for Day in the Dirt -- including sophomore Madeline Short who hauled and spread wood chips at the revived Lakeview South garden site, part of the City of Burlington's network of community gardens.

"It's fun to get outside and do some hard work," Short said, who was here as part of professor Christine Votovec’s course, Human Health and the Environment. "And it's great to accomplish something that's not just for yourself."

dumping gravel
Rubenstein School grad student Eduardo Rodriguez and undergrad Toni Hall ’16.

At another Day in the Dirt site near Burlington’s waterfront railyard, is the recently opened, eponymous RAILYARD.  “It’s an apothecary and herb clinic,” explains co-founder Kate Elmer Westdijk G’07, a food systems research specialist at UVM who teaches herbalism courses through the university’s Environmental Program. On an industrial corner outside the building, she and a team of UVM students in Natural Resources 206, Environmental Problem-Solving and Impact Assessment, made a plan for a series of planters and picnic tables.

“We want the outside of the building to reflect the values inside,” says environmental studies major Kristina Puris ’16 who helped lead the effort. Nearby, Rubenstein School grad student Eduardo Rodriguez and undergrad Toni Hall ’16, dump gravel. It will be used to anchor the team’s purple painted buckets. “Then we’ll fill them with soil and put in plants,” Hall says. “You’ll see; it will look a lot more beautiful.”


Joshua E. Brown