Cultivate Garden offers opportunity for growth for students and plants

Belmont student Kingston Perry walks down Compton Avenue smoking a cigarette.  He steps over a crumbling piece of what used to be a privacy fence and his heel smashes a delicate green leaf.  He reaches down, plucks another leaf from the ground and chews it.

Here, in the Cultivate garden, this is a perfectly normal sight.  Tucked between houses near the intersection of 15th and Compton avenues, Belmont staff and students grow produce, herbs and flowers that they then deliver to buyers in the community.

Cultivate is overseen by Enactus, a Belmont organization that brings together students, academic leaders and business people to work as entrepreneurs on projects designed to empower and aid the community.

The group’s involvement with the Cultivate garden was spearheaded by Belmont senior and Enactus member Brett Wisse and communications professor Jimmy Davis.  Now, Enactus manages the delivery system and online store for Cultivate.

“I’m part of Enactus, and last year when the transition happened I got involved.  The idea started with Dr. Davis,” Wisse said.  “They had a garden but they were going to get rid of it, so Enactus took it over.  I jumped in.”

One of the first changes Wisse and Davis made was to the foundation of the garden.  Davis and his team of students replaced the old, pressure-treated lumber beds in the spring of 2014 with eight larger beds made out of locally sourced cedar, giving the Cultivate garden over 500 square feet of bed space.

After the foundation came the source of life for the produce: water.

The water is harvested from rainwater collection tanks on nearby roofs from a local supporter of the program. The Cultivate gardeners are also experimenting with growing produce with an aquaponics system.

“You put fish in the bottom, you grow fish, fish poop in the water, the water is pumped to the top, it runs through a gravel bed, and there are plants in the gravel bed that clean the water and then it goes back into the fish tank,” Davis said.

While the garden does not use any pesticides or growth hormones, the Cultivate produce cannot be labeled organic because the garden is not certified by the government.

“Being certified organic is a real pain to do.  Being actually organic is pretty easy,” Davis said.  “When you buy local food, you’re getting organic because local people simply won’t pay the money to spray all their stuff because it is bad for you–but it’s also costly.”

Enactus is not the only group involved with Cultivate as individual students pitch in as well. Freshman Claudia Lenart sought out any opportunity on campus to fulfil her “dying urge to garden,” which led her to Cultivate.

“We just started planting our seeds right before Easter break, and it’s magical.  There are these little seeds that are the size of speck and they grow into a plant,” Lenart said.

“Did you know that luffas grow in the ground? We’re growing them over here,” Lenart says as she motions toward a bed in the back of the garden.

In addition to students interested in fulfilling their passion for gardening, the Belmont Slow Food club helps out at Cultivate during its  Saturday morning work sessions.

“This project works at the speed of nature.  Your lettuce will grow when it’s ready, your tomatoes will grow when they’re ready, and in the meantime, you’re just going to stand by and watch,” Davis said.

Currently, the gardeners are waiting for their seeds to turn to food, an exercise in patience that all farmers know.

“Last year, I wasn’t as involved with the planting process and it seemed like the plants came up really fast.  We’ve been doing this since the beginning of the semester, so now, I want veggies,” Wisse said.

From a business standpoint, the project has not yet turned a profit or proved its viability, but Davis is hopeful and patient.

“April is the cruelest month because it’s so lovely outside but there is nothing growing,” Davis said.  “In terms of finding ways to sell, it’s going quite well. We didn’t have difficulty moving the product that we had.”

The difficulty comes in  taking care of the garden during the summer months, as the people who are involved with the garden are not all available to tend to the produce in the summertime.

To turn a greater profit, the Enactus students plan to sell not only vegetables on campus but cut flowers, luffa gourds and starter plants.

“The idea with starter plants is that you start them indoors before the planting season, then you can transition them to the ground when it’s warmer,” Wisse said.

As with the produce, the Cultivate gardeners plan to offer delivery service around campus for the other goods, making sustainable consumption convenient for staff and students.

“To be a successful farmer, you have to have a diversity of things.  We have a lot of different kinds of fruits and vegetables.  You can eat a luffa, I’m told, but we are planning to let them dry out and turn them into scrubs and sponges,” Davis said.

Luffa gourds can be dried and used cosmetically and for cleaning, adding to the profitability of Cultivate and the variety of goods they can sell.

To the gardeners, Cultivate is more than an attempt to successfully sell and deliver locally grown food.  It is an experiment with nature that goes deeper than the roots of the plants.

“You’re dealing with the very mysteries of life.  What makes those seeds be alive? They certainly don’t look alive.  But with the right situation and nurturing they resume their life and cycle through. The mystery of all of those things is what you’re embracing with this stuff,” Davis said.

Perry, the Belmont student who had wandered into the garden, crouches to the ground, identifies another leaf as basil and pops it in his mouth.

“This is awesome. Can I get involved?” Perry asks.

This article was written by Jessica King. 

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