Another Glimpse at the Vision for the Organic Garden at Randolph College

The Vision

The Organic Garden at Randolph College is a special place on campus. What follows is an attempt to describe and justify the role of the garden in the present and future of the College and the region surrounding it, and the possibility of its contributions to a better understanding of the important issue of sustainability that ultimately pertains to the future of the Earth.

There is considerable potential in what the Organic Garden can do both for the College and the local/regional community. It strives to be a beautiful place where a large diversity of flora and fauna would exist in harmony with nature surrounding it and lying beyond its horizons, a place where College community members may retreat to replenish their energies and possibly contribute to its growth, an on-site laboratory for relevant projects, a venue for students' community service and internship programs, and a community outreach project enhancing the College's standing within the larger community. It also aims to be a model for what a piece of the sustainable future may look like. This last goal is an ambitious endeavor both for what will be required on campus to understand and support a project of this kind and for what it would try to accomplish in relation to realities that lie outside the College. This means that the Organic Garden through its evolution would become a Center for Community Design and Development.

What ultimately undergirds the work at such a center is the belief that sustainability is achievable only in a community context. The community in this sense is understood to be all that exist (flora, fauna, mineral, etc.) permanently and transitionally in a geographical location that can be understood, internalized, and acted upon by the human members of that community. Such a center will be a vibrant place of learning and enlightened action toward a sustainable future.

To successfully do all the above the following elements are necessary:

  1. The College community needs to recognize the significance and scope of the vision and fully support it.
  2. Issues of concern by all stakeholders would need to be addressed in the context of the vision.
  3. Creativity is the core element of the vision, and the role of students as the greatest harbinger of creativity on campus is central to the implementation of the vision. Students are encouraged to develop initiatives, and are charged with the responsibility for carrying them.
  4. Support elements-academic, staff, and outside community mentors-work in a supportive not dominating role.
  5. The present Organic Garden/future Center for Community Design and Development sees itself as an integral part of the Randolph College campus, maintaining its location on the Master Plan, drawing on College's resources and contributing to them. Decisions affecting it would need to be made with deliberation involving all stakeholders.
  6. A budget is needed for necessary purchases.

The pace of progress in the garden is directly related to the support provided by the College community during the early stages of its development. While money is required for making purchases, it is labor that is most important. Integrating the garden into the curriculum-an option for experiential learning and for internships and/or community service work-is the fastest way to provide the needed work force. Moreover, the development of a specific curriculum for organic gardening and sustainability issues with a special focus on Indigenous Knowledge (IK) theories and practices and Permaculture would represent a new and significant plateau in the evolution of the Organic Garden program. All changes at the garden, however, would need to be gradually absorbed and digested by the community so that the speed of action does not sacrifice the ownership process.

Nuts and Bolts

  1. We use Permaculture and Indigenous Knowledge (IK) practices for our work in the garden.
  2. Flora and fauna, both wild and domestic are integral parts of the garden development and essential for proper cycling of nutrients. They also help with pest and predator control in an organic manner.
  3. Adjacent areas that affect and in turn are affected by the garden are also factored in our garden work. These include the upper parts of the garden north and east of the Maier Museum parking lot, the trail leading to the garden, the buffer zone between the new athletic field and the garden (designated for the organic orchard), the surrounding woods, and the trail leading to the James River.
  4. Rain water is captured and used but access to running water is important as back-up.
  5. There is strong emphasis on aesthetics as everything done right will also be beautiful. However, beauty (not mere prettiness) will be the pinnacle of the garden's accomplishments at every stage and will not come quickly. The garden is still a kind of construction site which tries to look not too unruly in appearance as we continue our work.
  6. The garden has encouraged participation by Lynchburg community members in its development. The first rain water capturing system including its installation has been a gift of a Lynchburg resident. This relationship will continue.
  7. Community outreach will be a major feature of our garden work, further integrating the College into the life of Lynchburg and the surrounding counties. Student-directed workshops and other activities including site visits to other locations with relevant connection to our work will be a part of this outreach effort.
  8. Students provide the bulk of the labor, make initiatives, and assume responsibility for many decisions and activities in the garden.
  9. Training is provided by mentors (including students as future mentors) for all essential work and safety procedures at the garden as new gardener applicants join.
  10. We need a budget for purchasing items that may not be obtained freely. The amount of money needed may vary from year to year depending on the number and kinds of projects undertaken and the number of students participating from different departments.
  11. Any major changes to the infrastructure in the garden will be discussed with the Sustainability Council in advance.
  12. The governing body of the Organic Garden is made up of those who work in the garden. Decisions are made through consensus.
  13. Since the activities in the Organic Garden more closely relate to academic affairs on campus, the Organic Garden's governing body reports to the Dean of the College in regular monthly meetings.

Urgency of the Moment

Growing an organic garden on a college campus is no longer a novel occurrence. Many Colleges and universities in the US and abroad have organic gardens and organic dining facilities. Increasing consciousness about the connection between wholesome food and better health along with a desire to be more ecologically responsible has led to this welcome phenomenon. Largely missing from academic settings, however, are community design and development programs that are indispensible for in-depth understanding of sustainability issues. We, at Randolph College, are in a position to perform a pioneering role in this regard and must seize the opportunity while still present. Adequate funding with full institutional support is urgently needed to propel the Organic Garden project into its next phase of development. The fact that the College is promoting sustainability should provide the additional impetus to reduce the gap between words and action in this regard.

Final notes

All of us working in the garden consider the present garden/future center more an unfolding of a process than the making of a product. Our goal is to identify and put into place or motion specific elements and processes that we hope will lead to a sustainable mode of existence for us and all that surround us. This requires new ways of thinking and new structures to support it. The pitfall, time and gain, is in wishing to accomplish something genuinely new while using the old structures and methods of thinking.

Shahriar Abbassi

December 2009