Campus gardens feed, educate and nourish the Emory community

By Raven Crosby | Emory Report | July 23, 2021

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Small gardens across Emory’s Atlanta campus build connections among volunteers who tend them, increase food accessibility locally and reinforce Emory’s commitment to sustainability. Photo by Raven Crosby.

Tucked into different corners of Emory’s Atlanta campus are eight small communal gardens overflowing with produce, herbs and flowers. Operated by the Office of Sustainability Initiatives (OSI), these inconspicuous parcels are home to the Emory Educational Garden Project, an initiative that makes small-scale food production more accessible for the Emory community while raising awareness about issues related to food production. 

Though the gardens are overseen by Erik Edwards, gardens project coordinator and research greenhouse manager, volunteers are at the heart of the program.

Approximately 100 volunteers support the gardens each year, with some helping for a single workday and others stopping by weekly. More than just a garden, each plot of land serves as a forum for students, faculty and staff to meet each other and bond over a shared interest in horticulture, food production and sustainability. 

The Educational Gardens feature a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, and Edwards particularly emphasizes growing uncommon and heirloom varieties.

“Vegetables in stores are bred for ship-ability and shelf-life, not for flavor or nutrient content,” Edwards says. “By growing unusual varieties such as purple sweet potatoes, garden participants can expand their palates with vegetables they normally wouldn’t be able to try or find.”

The gardens also celebrate Southeastern heritage by including native or traditional plants such as collards, okra and peanuts. Herbs (including mint, rosemary and thyme) are also grown in many of the gardens and, along with the strawberries and asparagus, survive year after year, providing harvests for each new cohort of Emory gardeners.

Educating while gardening

As the name suggests, education is a key component of the Educational Gardens Project. Though some volunteers are seasoned gardeners, many are new to the world of horticulture.

Edwards demonstrates helpful techniques for managing these spaces by working with the environment, rather than against it. Sustainable food production practices are integrated into the gardens’ day-to-day operations. For example, scraps and plant clippings are transformed into compost that is incorporated into the garden beds. This builds healthier soil while teaching volunteers about the benefits of diverting biodegradable materials from landfills.

In addition, avoiding pesticides safeguards the health of both pollinators and humans. Using these techniques reduces the gardens’ impact on the environment while educating the Emory community about sustainable food production. 

“I joined the gardens to learn more about how the food I eat is grown, and so that I am more in touch with my food and so one day I can have a garden of my own,” says Sara Flano, a junior majoring in biology and on the pre-health track. “Having a connection with the food I eat, by participating in its production and harvest, makes the fruits and vegetables so much more delicious and rewarding to eat.” 

Benefits beyond the gardens

All plants in the Educational Gardens are grown organically from seeds in the research greenhouse. When it’s time, volunteers plant the vegetable starters and care for them by mulching, weeding and harvesting.

The plants are helped by the Rosalynn Carter Butterfly Garden, a space on campus that Edwards started where monarchs and other butterflies can thrive, rest during migrations and lay eggs. The butterfly garden “brings many vital pollinators to the educational gardens and provides an oasis for insects to feed and rest,” Edwards says.

Volunteers enjoy the fruits of their labors by taking home most produce grown in the gardens — but no food is wasted. Excess harvests are donated to area food banks or the Eagle Food Co-op, a partnership between the Campus Life Student Case Management and Intervention Services team and Bread Coffeehouse. Students experiencing food insecurity can request fresh, seasonal produce from the gardens for pickup at the co-op at no cost. 

The gardens benefit many people that way, but also build a sense of community among the volunteers: people of different departments, positions and ages who would not typically have a chance to meet.

That connection is part of what led sophomore Nick Chang to volunteer. “I devoted a lot of time to growing plants at home prior to moving to Emory,” the environmental sciences major says. “I  had to leave most of my plants in Wisconsin so I joined the gardens as a way to continue working with plants. Especially during the pandemic, I’ve really appreciated being able to engage with other members of the Emory community while doing something I love.”

“In the gardens, we’re all able to come together and work toward a common goal: sustainability and feeding ourselves,” Edwards says. His favorite part of the Education Gardens is teaching people that they can grow their own food and contribute to food security and sustainability.

“Many people have no personal engagement with where their food comes from or the ecosystems around us, particularly in an urban context,” he says. “The gardens allow volunteers to become connected with their food in a holistic way, not just as something we purchase at the grocery store.” 

Email gardens@emory.edu to stay up-to-date with the latest garden news by joining the Educational Gardens listserv. Follow the Office of Sustainability Initiatives on Facebook (@emorysustainability), Instagram (@emorysustainability) and Twitter (@EmoryGreen) for Gardens and Eagle Food Co-op updates.