Grow Your Own

"Gardening in West Campus can get a little dirty."

Melanie Blakeman sits in the House of Commons garden. Photo: Elliott Heidenreich

Melanie Blakeman sits in the House of Commons garden. Photo: Elliott Heidenreich

By: Shannon Mullery

Most college students are so far from removed from the ritual of gardening that they don’t even remember to water the cute succulent they got from the street fair - much less consider growing their own edible food. However, student housing cooperatives foster unique initiatives for students to learn how to grow food they can eat. By providing more land to grow on than the average apartment complex, as well as an accumulation of information from other students, students living in cooperatives in West Campus are learning about sustainable food and self sufficiency.

SMEAR talked to three different students who have taken on gardening responsibilities this fall semester at their respective Inter-Cooperative Council houses to get a closer look at the unique challenges of growing food in an urban setting.

House of Commons

Melanie Blakeman  has served as the garden officer at HOC for about three years.  The co-op is registered with the Austin Sustainable Food Center and was used as the location for the first ICC gardening officer training, as this is the first year that every house has had a garden.

Royal House

Baccio Notzon is in his first semester of co-operative living,  and is currently  the garden officer at Royal House. Previously, Royal’s garden had seen a significant hiatus, but Baccio is working diligently with the house’s yard officer to restore it.

French House

Bailey Anderson is a first-year gardening officer at French House. Although there were previous attempts to build French House’s garden, this semester’s garden has seen the most growth in a while, thanks to a few dedicated co-opers. French House is also a part of the Sustainable Food Center.


SMEAR: So what can you tell me about the history with your house’s garden?

Bailey: We started French House’s garden last semester. I know people tried before, but it didn’t really work. I think that’s just because people weren’t willing to put the effort into it. But last semester, we had a lot of people interested in growing food and working with dirt. Since we’ve started the garden, it’s been pretty successful.

Bacio: I’m actually not sure about how long the garden beds have been there. I think it’s a fairly recent addition, but I don’t think there have been plants in them at least for the past two semesters, from what I can tell. That was one of my things, when I was running for garden officer, was wanting to start having plants at Royal.

Melanie: Yeah, I don’t remember when the garden first started, but it’s at least been around for, like, over - maybe between seven and ten years, is my guess. We definitely fucked it up when I came, but like fucked it up in a good way. We rearranged a lot of stuff and rebuilt a lot of things… we re-did the layout, I built the compost, and we made a community garden last year.

S: What are you growing, or aspiring to grow, in your garden right now?

Bailey: Most of the things we grow right now are edible. We do have a couple of things that aren’t just because people brought them, like they were given to us - so we have like elephant ears that aren’t edible and a fern, but other than that everything we grow is stuff we can eat. We’re kind of in the transitioning period; we’re trying to plant things for the winter, because it’s been hot, so we’re about to have a lot of broccoli and mustard and things like that.

Bacio: We, as a house, decided we don’t really want fruiting plants, so I think we’re trying to focus more on herbs and peppers, stuff like that. And right now we only have two plants, one is Kongkung - chinese water spinache. I grew them from leftover plants used for cooking that I got from the Asian market. You just get the stems and stick them in the ground and start watering them. It was super easy and it grows really fast; we just water them every day. We also just recently got red cabbage, and want to get some peppers, maybe some oregano, stuff like that.

M: My goal with the garden for the past few years has been trying to grow things that are really kind of specialty, like peas or kale or cauliflower, broccoli, peppers - things that are more expensive to buy.

S: What made you interested in taking on the role of garden officer?

Bailey: It’s really nice to come home and have things growing in our yard. It’s really exciting when peppers are like turning yellow, it’s cool. I just love gardening, I love having my garden here.

Bacio: Well I would garden a lot, kind of growing up - I’m from Austin - and my dad and I had a little patch up front where we would grow lemon grass and peppers and  basil, and mint stuff like that. So I was really into that. I really like working outside, so I was like “Oh, this is perfect,” since I’ve always kind of been interested in outdoorsy stuff.

M: I’ve always grown food for myself. I’ve always loved it, just in general and as an act of resistance and a revolutionary act. There’s a lot of fucked up things with the mainstream food system and the way our food is sourced and grown… So I think from a young age, I was always really attracted to food justice; and to me that’s not just veganism and stuff, but kind of working on growing some of your own food and if you can kind of undermine that system, that’s awesome.

S: What are some of the challenges you've faced with gardening in an urban setting?

Bailey: I grew up on a farm, not in an urban setting at all, and it’s really hard to grow things here for me, because the soil is really different. The setting is really different in general; it’s really hot and the plants struggle. And French House doesn’t have a lot of outdoor space, so we have our front yard, and everything in the backyard is concrete, so we’re composting now. That was the hardest thing, getting started, because you have food waste from like twenty people that you have to find room for in an outdoor space, so that was a huge struggle. We’re still trying to get established and figure out like what we can grow really, because of how our yard is and how open to the public our yard is. I don’t know, I think the longer we do this, the better it will get. We’ll figure out what can actually grow in our yard. And then being on top of it as a student, it’s hard to like process what we need to be doing all the time.

Bacio: I can definitely see complications for bigger projects, but just for what we’re doing here, since we already have the beds and are just growing herbs and stuff like that, I don’t really see any complications. For bigger projects in the future we might, but right now it’s such a small scale.

M: Drunk people in west campus - yeah, people are just generally disrespectful. The other day I was just sitting in front of the garden and this drunk girl just comes from the south side of our garden, walks all the way through our garden, steps on everything, is like stumbling in high heels, and then just keeps walking. My heart broke for every plant that died in that catastrophe.

The House Of Commons garden. Photo: Elliott Heidenreich

The House Of Commons garden. Photo: Elliott Heidenreich

S: How many people in the house are currently helping with the garden?

Bailey: We have three people right now, we call them garden gnomes - so it’s me, and I’m in the garden a lot, and then we have three people who do an hour a week.

Bacio: Yeah, so it’s mostly me.  As far as people working on the yard, there are three of us. We just recently had our labor holiday so we did have some people working on it, but usually it’s just us, with me maintaining the garden.

M: I want to say that a challenge is getting people in the house involved, but honestly people really care, and it’s been really cool seeing people get really into it.

S: Is there anything you want to add, or say in closing?

Bailey: I find a lot of joy in the most basic elements of life: food, water, and soil. Gardening combines those in a really cool way. The best part of this for me has been watching my housemates, who maybe don't have the same background or relationship with food as me, learn how to grow food and get excited about the process.

M: Just that, honestly, gardening is so easy. I think people are really intimidated by it, because it is this thing that we’re really disconnected from - from food in general, and the production of food. People tend to just kind of have this mystical idea about it, like this thing that’s far away, but it can be something that’s not far away. It can be in your front yard, or in your room, or on your roof, or on your porch. Really, nature’s awesome. You just put seeds in the ground and a plant arrives, out of nowhere. It’s purely magic. I don’t know how it happens. It’s really easy, so I think I want to say that you should try to garden - everyone should try.