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Culinary garden connects Skagit Valley College campus

Sep 4th, 2015 | Category: Community

Students, staff, and community learn and bond through project

by Jessamyn Tuttle

In the middle of Skagit Valley College’s Mount Vernon campus, three small triangles of land tucked between sidewalks are home to a riot of flowers, grasses, herbs and an amazing number of vegetables. Tomatoes and potatoes grow in a happy jumble next to beans, strawberries peek out of the ground cover, and huge chard and cabbage plants anchor the planting.

Culinary students and staff pick vegetables from the garden, just outside of the culinary arts building. The food is used in the classroom, served in the cafeteria, and also for sale at the honor stand. photo courtesy of Skagit Valley College Public Information Office

Culinary students and staff pick vegetables from the garden, just outside of the culinary arts building. The food is used in the classroom, served in the cafeteria, and also for sale at the honor stand. Photo courtesy of Skagit Valley College Public Information Office

The garden is far more than just an attractive addition to SVC’s landscaping. Herbs and vegetables from the garden find their way into cooking projects and dishes for the college cafeteria, and the garden itself serves as another classroom for students in the Culinary Arts program.

While many hands have helped build the garden, culinary instructor Suzanne Butler was at the helm. “It’s kind of my baby,” she said. Having had students who didn’t know the difference between parsley and thyme, or what a raw vegetable looked like (before being cooked), she wanted to be able to give her students first-hand experience of growing and harvesting. “It’s necessary to a culinary education, to know where [food] came from,” she said.

The garden first took shape in 2013, in the three odd-sized pieces of lawn outside the culinary arts building. Butler applied for funding through an Exceptional Faculty Award, and at the time didn’t think it applied to her. “I thought, ‘I’m not exceptional faculty, I’m a part-time grunt,’” but it was pointed out to her that the money, which included funds from Puget Sound Energy added to and managed by the Skagit Valley College Foundation, was intended for exceptional projects, which the garden certainly was.

Between Butler and another colleague, they obtained $8,000 from the grant, which enabled them to tackle the project wholeheartedly. With that amount, she said, it was no longer a matter of chipping away at the project. “We could really do it, and that made so much difference.”

They were able to rent rototillers, install irrigation, and buy topsoil and compost. Ani Gurnee, a local garden designer and a friend of Butler’s, offered encouragement and assistance with the design and plant selection. “It had to be part of the landscaping of the school,” said Butler, so Gurnee designed it to have year-round interest, and to have plenty of flowers for both beauty and pollination.

They made it happen over summer break, with volunteer labor from the faculty, college maintenance staff, and anyone else who wanted to help. “There were students who were interested, and we corralled them,” said Butler, adding that while many of the volunteers brought mainly muscle and enthusiasm, others had skills to offer, like one who installed the irrigation system. They cut sod, tilled and mulched the soil, and built terraces with beautiful local stone donated to the project.

Lyn Highet, SVC food services manager, was a mover and shaker on many of the project’s logistics. “Without her it would not have happened,” Butler said.

They didn’t plant that first year until September, but by the following spring they had more lettuce than they could handle. “Whatever we did, we did it right,” Butler said. “By spring when the lettuce came up we were selling it for a dollar a head.”

One downside of the garden is that students miss the summer season and are not around to help maintain it because culinary classes are not held in July and August. “As it turns out, I’m the gardener,” Butler said. But this year she’s hoping to start incorporating garden work into the curriculum for her fall quarter students, so all new culinary students have a chance to get to know the garden and what it produces. Once they take her introductory course they move on to production, then baking, and while they are not working directly in the garden, they will be using the produce as they cook for the student cafeteria.

Ongoing funding for the garden comes from the college’s Chef’s Club, and there has also been some collaboration with the environmental studies program. The college pays for infrastructure maintenance, composting and water. Other projects include the new sign and kiosk currently going up in the garden, featuring twining metal vines made by the welding department. Butler is hoping to connect with the campus greenhouse for starting plants, and eventually have a hoophouse to help extend the growing season.

In the meantime, the garden continues to grow. An honor stand lets staff and students purchase produce, but Butler regularly gives it away to interested passersby. “It really is for the whole campus,” she said. “The garden makes friends for the whole department.”

Published in the September 2015 issue of Grow Northwest

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