Press "Enter" to skip to content

Students volunteer to prepare community garden for winter

On the morning of Friday, Oct. 23, nearly a dozen Mills women converged at the campus garden to remove exhausted tomato plants, tend seedlings and prepare planting beds for cover crops.

Christina McWhorter, Greenhouse and Botanical Garden coordinator, talking to volunteers. (Debbie Barragan)
Christina McWhorter, Greenhouse and Botanical Garden coordinator, talking to volunteers. (Debbie Barragan)

Nearly every Friday this semester, volunteers gather on campus to cultivate the Community Garden. It has been a fall tradition for the past several years to help ready the garden for winter, according to Christina McWhorter, who runs the garden as Botanical Garden and greenhouse coordinator. Anyone can participate.

“Our goal is to make the community garden accessible to everyone,” McWhorter said.

On this particular morning, before anyone got their hands dirty, participants discussed the biological and philosophical side of the mission, from global warming and spiritual harmony with the Earth to how cover crops fix nitrogen in the soil and the role of mushrooms in healthy soil ecosystems.

McWhorter suggested that the volunteers write a personal, anonymous note about negative things that they no longer wanted in their lives and were encouraged to place this paper into the compost bin to be decomposed. As follow up the gardeners were asked to write a positive message — something they wanted to happen in their lives — which McWhorter would then laminate and post as a sign among the plants.

McWhorter has a Master’s degree in public horticulture and has worked for the Mills biology department, particularly with Professor Bruce Pavlik, since July 2005. She enlists students to help in plant propagation who in turn receive hands-on experience for their plant biology research.

Through this program elements of the Mills master design plan have been implemented, making better use of the space where the community garden sits. “There used to be a chain-link fence along the road here,” McWhorter said of the space between the greenhouse and the service road. “The area had not been developed or cultivated. We took out the fence and sheet-mulched, added pathways, plantings and a native grass meadow.”

Currently, one work-study student is employed by the garden, 20 students are enrolled in Exploring the World of Plants, each of whom put in eight hours during a semester, and 12 to 15 volunteers help out as well, including students, faculty, staff and residents in the nearby community.

Since the beginning of the semester, transfer student and Larsen House resident Lilah Crews-Pless has volunteered in the garden. Acceptance into the Larsen House is based in part on willingness to dedicate and commit to participating in the Community Garden.

“One of the benefits of this arrangement is to have free produce available to cook in the Larsen kitchen,” Crews-Pless said as she pulled unwanted plants. Another benefit of Larsen House involves a chance to get in a little therapy.

Early plants in pots, waiting to be transplanted. (Debbie Barragan)
Early plants in pots, waiting to be transplanted. (Debbie Barragan)

“I find it is a way to unwind at the end of the week,” Crews-Pless said. “One thing I didn’t realize when I signed-up to live in Larsen House was the community aspect, having a chance to meet people and talk.”

Vanessa Soto, a first-year student, saw the garden when she partook in a campus sustainability tour. Since her mother tended flowers in their Los Angeles garden, she wanted to learn gardening skills at Mills to take home and share with her mother. Since she has “no classes on Friday … this works out perfectly,” Soto said.

The College is currently undergoing plans to build Gaia House, a new propagation workspace, office and storage site where students can work on plant research, according to McWhorter. The department aims to have the building completed by spring of 2010.

The Community Garden’s upcoming projects include a visit in November by a classroom of middle-school students, a film screening about the social justice of community gardens and a workshop specialized in the healing qualities of certain plants.