Photos by Sally Jean Wegert
Story by John Greer

ehind the Office of Sustainability’s small residential building, there was a yard lined with raised bed boxes and a mysterious large lump composed of dirt and vegetation.

This brownish-green mound, surrounded by a narrow trench and speckled with all manner of vines, straw and plants, was Project Grow’s personal hugelkultur.

Compiled by consolidating wood debris and other compostable materials into a mound and then layering soil over top, the hugelkultur served as a long-term source of nutrients for the crops.

As this permaculture system flourished, so too did Project Grow, a campus-driven fellowship tasked with maintaining a community garden. The backyard of the Office of Sustainability naturally became the fertile soil for its agricultural experiments.

By November, the squash and other summertime plants had given way to a wave of dark greens. Leafy vegetables such as arugula and hardy herbs such as thyme and rosemary were ready for harvest. A single pumpkin, the office’s prized fall possession, remained. The garden was under the sole care of its student fellows, such as Bowling Green sophomore Anthony Steiner.

“I first heard about it, I think it was, at [an] Earth Day event where they were going to build a hugelkultur mound, and I said, ‘I’m gonna help them build that hugelkultur mound,’” he said.

The plants’ growth also paralleled the evolution of WKU’s sustainability movement. Led by coordinator Christian Ryan, the Office of Sustainability assumed an increasingly influential role on campus, starting with a plan in 2013 that saved Fresh Food Company’s waste from the landfill so that it could be used as compost instead.

According to Ryan, the plan was already proving successful.

“We’ve had it going pretty much nonstop since late last January, so it’s been almost a year, and we are averaging about a ton of food waste per month diverted from the landfill,” Ryan said.

An agreement between Ryan and Aramark representative Steve Hoyng made local growers Greenhouse ATP the tomato provider for Fresh Food Company. It was a part of a greater vision to incorporate more local food into WKU dining services.

"Being given the opportunity to have a community garden — that's kind of like a blank canvas."

“The contract finally went through, and the next step is to look for a partnership with Sunny Pointe Gardens,” said Campbellsville junior and Project Grow fellow Alexandra Hezik. She hoped, with Ryan’s help, to incorporate this work into a thesis on the Real Food Challenge. Universities that signed on to the challenge pledged to purchase at least 20 percent of their food for dining services locally.

Beginning in 2013, Project Grow provided Ryan with the help needed to make the Office of Sustainability a best-practice demonstration site. The goal, she said, was to make the office’s yard an example to “show homeowners how to do things in the most sustainable and most economically efficient way.”

The fellowship included six undergraduate students who put in five hours of work a week. The initiative marked an accessible entryway for undergraduate students to become part of the sustainability conversation in a way that produced something very tangible: edible crops.

The garden required regular maintenance and expertise, and the members of Project Grow proved worthy of the task. In addition to the hugelkultur, the fellows also built and maintained mini-greenhouse structures and raised bed boxes, which were small wooden frames filled with soil and vegetation. “It’s definitely a significant part of my week every Tuesday and Thursday,” Steiner said.

“It’s been cool seeing all this stuff grow up.”

There were plenty of plans in the works for next year, too. These projects were all initiated and conducted by the student fellows themselves.

“There’s going [to] be a new beer-making class on campus next, and basically they want Project Grow to grow the hops for that class,” Hezik said. “The box back there is going be a bee house — we’re going to hopefully produce honey and gather beeswax.”

If Project Grow’s garden was to survive, environmental recognition and activism needed to foster a greater student concern. A key facet of nurturing and preserving widespread support was developing interest in sustainability within the campus community.

Graduate student and Project Grow coordinator Beth McGrew headed the effort to start the garden and oversaw the undergraduate student fellows.

“Being given the opportunity to have a community garden — that’s kind of like a blank canvas, to see what kind of community garden the community wants and use this opportunity to build something amazing,” she said.

If the sight of wilted plants and green grass littered with leafy hues of red and brown was any indication, fall had arrived on campus. While this meant that the growing season was mostly over, it also meant that the backyard garden was already undergoing preparations for a spring rebirth.

For some student fellows, the onset of winter also meant the time to take a short break from Project Grow and return home. Although it had only been a year since Project Grow’s inception, Ryan had already found clear evidence of progress. Student fellows submitted reflections to her each week, discussing new insights that they observed while researching or working in the garden.

In demonstrating the progress these students made over the past semester, the reflections uncovered the symbiotic relationship between the garden and the fellows.

For Ryan, this perfectly encapsulated the ultimate objective of the fellowship: to nourish both the garden and the young minds of those who tended it.

“Project Grow is as much about growing the fellows as it is the landscape,” she said.