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Home » Can Food Gardens Help Universities Provide the Fruit of Knowledge?

Can Food Gardens Help Universities Provide the Fruit of Knowledge?

Turning campus dirt into communal garden plots transforms universities into hubs of positive environmental change from the ground up.

Academics may be good at producing research papers on what others should do to improve sustainability, but could they do more themselves? Tema Milstein and colleagues argue in their article that the place to start disrupting ‘business as usual‘ is on campus. They say planting food gardens on campus can act as hubs for positive environmental communication and ecocentric learning – if you can get the plans past the administrators.

The space for these food gardens comes at the expense of lawns and concrete. Milstein and colleagues state that the architecture and landscaping of universities have their roots “…in medieval European religious education and, later, in the United States, in the formation of early universities dedicated to developing civic moral values.” This, in part, is the idea of order being imposed on wild nature.

The authors argue that planting food gardens helps break down the idea of nature as ‘other’ and helps students and staff recognise their situation within nature. This might come as a surprise from a strictly botanical point of view. A lot of work has gone into making sure that tomatoes or apples grown in a garden are very much not natural, instead being tastier, better cropping and easier to grow. The reason food gardens have a positive effect is that people are encouraged to participate in gardening. This contrasts the attitude you could expect if you were to turn up to a typical university garden with a spade and a can-do attitude.

Milstein and colleagues use case studies to share their experience of students learning about crop failure in bad years. This moves the discussion from an abstract notion taught in the classroom to something a person could feel they have a personal stake in. 

Food gardens communicate what we can and cannot control as environmental managers. They also communicate positive experiences of acting in ways that tangibly – even rapidly – manifest a better world. Learning through tending food in this way also counters dominant discourses that such activities are the responsibility of others, people “not like us” and not at universities, who labor in other communities or countries, often as migrant farmworkers, paid meager wages in exploitive working conditions. In contrast, campus food gardens transform discourse so that knowing about growing becomes who university goers are as well.

Milstein et al. 2023.

The biggest problem in setting up food gardens is the university administration. They note it was easier to set up gardens in Australia than in the USA, but also that the Australian gardens were set up some years after the American gardens. Some of the article reads a little like satire on modern university management.

Although research demonstrates that universities benefit most from sustainability projects where students engage in tangible activities (Laycock Pedersen and Robinson 2018), administrator pushback occurs often because of unfamiliarity with food gardens, fear of the unknown, or reluctance to be first to innovate. Indeed, even though “innovation” is a common university mantra, the practical demands of accountability and “quality assurance” leave little space for innovation, restorative or otherwise.

Milstein et al. 2023.

Another factor Milstein and colleagues is the importance of control of space. Open gardens where people are welcome to take the food challenge the idea of control. They write:

For example, once gardens are established, administrators may seek to limit access via fences and locks out of concerns about the very communities gardens could serve. One administrator in our US example, for instance, repeatedly raised concerns over the possibility that “the homeless” might enter the garden to eat food – even though feeding the hungry is a central purpose of such projects. Indeed, examples abound of campus gardens and farms in both countries that are fenced and locked (albeit intermittently) over concerns about types of “community” that might be attracted.

Milstein et al. 2023.

The prize administrators can gain from supporting such projects is that they can grow their own community as part of the campus. Milstein and colleagues show how students, academic and grounds staff, as well as administration, can come together to create a vibrant, educational and aesthetically beautiful space.

Milstein, T., Sherry, C., Carr, J. and Siebert, M. (2023) “‘Got to get ourselves back to the garden’: Sustainability transformations and the power of positive environmental communication,” Journal of Environmental Planning and Management, pp. 1–19. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1080/09640568.2023.2197140.

Alun Salt

Alun (he/him) is the Producer for Botany One. It's his job to keep the server running. He's not a botanist, but started running into them on a regular basis while working on writing modules for an Interdisciplinary Science course and, later, helping teach mathematics to Biologists. His degrees are in archaeology and ancient history.

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