Students receive hands-on lessons in sustainability
Tall thickets of bamboo rustle in a breeze along the fencline under a partly cloudy January sky. Floating bees and butterflies pollinate flowering perennials. Nearby, a group of students stake up a jujube tree, securing it in a mound of soil.
This is the Florida Gulf Coast University Food Forest, a lush half-acre designed in the spirit of a rainforest ecosystem, with layer upon layer of plant and insect life supporting each other.
“Instead of just one plain, we’re using a 3-D space to grow food,” explained outgoing Food Forest President Kelly Walsh, a 21-year-old senior at the school. A group of students including Ms. Walsh harvested and shucked buckets of pigeon peas on Friday morning.
The Forest was built “by students, for students” in 2011 following a commitment from the student government to help fund it. Now this mini-ecosystem boasts roughly 50 or more plants, with plans to double that number, Ms. Walsh said, and hopefully expand the space as well. Many are edible; others function more as service plants, providing nitrogen to the soil, for instance.
The entire forest is student and volunteer run. FGCU junior Arlo Simonds is set to take Ms. Walsh’s place as president when she graduates in the spring with a bachelor’s degree in environmental studies and minors in biology and interdisciplinary studies.
During the week, the forest generally maintains an open door policy. Students may show up in the off hours to work, take pictures, meditate or munch on some fruit or vegetables (at your own risk, Ms. Walsh adds). On Friday mornings between 8 a.m. and 1 p.m., students work in the forest to gain service learning hours, which is required for graduation.
“I like that it gives FGCU students a way to get their hands dirty right on campus for service learning,” said math major Travis Lay, adding that he recently started growing his own sweet potatoes and heirloom tomatoes at home.
Mr. Lay was part of a group organized by Food Forest members who last Wednesday were sent to Naples Botanical Garden to help with some weeding and cleanup. It’s one of a number of reciprocal relationships built up by the forest, with the Naples Garden providing seeds, fruit trees and other resources.
The forest also on Friday mornings hosts tours for FGCU classes or the public. The website, www.fgcufoodforest. weebly.com, has more information. Ms. Walsh led a group of students last week through the winding trails, past dune sunflowers and mimosa and oregano, all of it growing on top of what was an empty lot before 2011.
“We took a limestone parking lot and turned it into a flourishing garden in a year and a half, so that’s pretty awesome,” she told the group.
On the walk, the students learned that the forest was built using the principles of permaculture, a design theory centered on sustainability. (FGCU also began offering a three-credit permaculture course for undergraduates last year). Dr. Eva Worden, Ph.D., a former professor of environmental horticulture at the University of Florida, started her own 55-acre organic farm in Punta Gorda, where she practices some of the same principles. Dr. Worden suggested the forest could help students develop good habits.
“In the setting of the university, where people’s minds are open to new ideas and are often in formative stages, that exposure can be integrated into one’s world view and carried forward into their lives, and applied at the household level and at the level of personal choices,” she said.
M. Solomon Zaremby, an environmental studies major with a minor in psychology, has plans after graduation to become an organic farmer and, later, complete an advanced degree in psychology and practice “hortitherapy.” He pointed out some of the medicinal aspects of plants in the forest, including the Moringa tree; he described the leaves as a “superfood.”
“(The Food Forest) has changed my life and my view of a lot of things,” he said.
Mimosa, a plant that grows flat and green on the ground, drew “oohs” and “awesomes” from some students on a tour because if you stroke the tiny leaves with a finger, they’ll react by closing up like eyelids. In addition to being merely awesome, mimosa has a specific function at the forest: to create nitrogen for the soil. All the plants here have a purpose, Ms. Walsh points out. Many plants have multiple ones, whether it’s the windbreaking bamboo or the banana tree leaves, which offer shade for patches of sweet potatoes or tired workers, in addition to their fruit.
“These bananas taste better,” Ms. Walsh said. “They’re getting a lot of love.” ¦