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The University of Wisconsin Oshkosh Community Gardens project started in 2006 when a group of students decided to create an organic garden on campus as a way to build community and connect us to the earth. While the garden would be on campus, the goal was for it to eventually become a place where people in Oshkosh could also have garden space, which is difficult to find in the city.

The basic purpose of the community gardens was to have a space where community members could get to know one another while taking care of one of our basic needs — nutritious food.  Since no two people garden exactly the same way, you can always learn new things and teach things to other people. You can share seeds at the beginning and crops at the end of the season.

You can share recipes, tools and local news; find out where a good local band is playing; or where that new store that a friend just opened up is. The point is that when community comes together, it becomes one entity helping itself become stronger instead of small fragments worried about property lines or that their neighbor’s grass is too long or full of weeds.

The nutritive value of food is seriously lacking in grocery-chain stores partly because of questionable growing and processing methods and partly because of the distance food has to travel from origin to shelf. If food is grown in the community, you know where your food comes from and how it’s grown, and you can contribute that much less to pollution and fuel consumption.

Try to imagine a scenario where the food trucks stop delivering the food that we are dependent on. What then? What if we have lost the ability to live as a self-sustaining community and our infrastructure lets us down? In addition, there have been studies that show how nutrition is linked positively to behavior; schools with healthy lunch programs generally have better behaved students.

The UW Oshkosh Community Gardens site is located at 663 w. 3rd Avenue, a half-block west of Ohio Street. We broke ground in June, and a few students planted the first crops. In early September, we planted some fall/winter crops, using cold-frames in the hopes to extend the season as long as possible. There are more students in the area during the “off-season” for gardening, so by turning the “off-season” into more of an “on-season,” we are able to include a potentially greater number of interested students in the project.

For the moment, the gardens are open only to UW Oshkosh students because of liability issues. We are hoping, with the aid of University administration, that we can resolve those issues by next spring so that we can invite the community of Oshkosh to join us and truly make it a community garden. Then we can use it to bridge the gap between campus and community.

The UW Oshkosh Community Gardens is managed by a student organization on campus simply named “Community Gardens.” The purpose of the organization is to maintain and promote the campus garden while engaging students in activities that encourage self-sufficiency, sustainability and community connection.

For example, we are experimenting with the practice of permaculture in the garden; that is, we are creating natural habitat in the garden wherever we can in attempt to mimic as close as possible the natural ecosystems. It probably goes without saying that we are 100 percent organic (though not certified yet), and by using these ecosystems, we support natural predators to prey on garden pests, and encourage soil microbes and invertebrates to help enrich the soil, negating the need for synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. We will have workshops for building eco-friendly signage for the garden, bird and bat house building, canning and preserving, and gardening anywhere — even in a dorm room. We show films about sustainability and have guest speakers as well as field trips to local farms and community gardens.

The students are an integral part of this group, as they are the ones who run the gardens.  The students in this group come from diverse majors, including education, business, science, environmental studies and communications. Each student has their own unique background, interests and skill set, and we contribute what we know to help the garden evolve into something that reflects the people gardening in it.

For example, those interested in education can use the garden as a teaching tool to keep children engaged in one of the oldest traditions on the planet, to teach them self-sufficiency and the importance of cultivating relationships with neighbors. If someone is interested in honing their skills in promotions or business planning, they can certainly gain some experience while helping the group to better manage and promote the gardens, especially when the larger community gets involved.

The organization would like to expand its scope to take on challenges like the Campus Kitchens Project, recycling food from the campus cafeterias that would otherwise be thrown out, to help to feed the hungry. We would like to donate food to kitchens like the Salvation Army as well as volunteer to work in those kitchens. Gardening doesn’t have to take place in the dirt; the mission and vision of this group can be expressed through actions in the community to make it stronger in every conceivable aspect.

The campus garden is one part of fulfilling the Campus Sustainability Plan announced in April 2008, and it is important to the University as a model of sustainable practices. It’s a place where education can be extended and mixed with social life. It’s a place to learn transferrable skills from peers in areas that are perhaps not otherwise accessible. Overall, the garden is a model of social community cultivated by the students to grow an appreciation for nature while learning to live in harmony with it.

If you are interested in joining the Community Gardens organization, contact Damion Drover

This essay was submitted by the Community Gardens student organization. Faculty, staff and students are encouraged to contribute calendar items, campus announcements and other good news to UW Oshkosh Today. Click here to submit.