When Maria Garcia ducks into the greenhouse, she’s already grinning. She eagerly points out the bright green bell peppers flourishing in their pots, and she’s especially proud of a jewel-toned eggplant in the back, its skin a shiny purple that almost seems to glow in the light slanting through the walls of the greenhouse.
She’s never gardened before, but she loves to cook. It’s rewarding to see where her food comes from.
“I get all excited when I see the little fruits blooming,” she said, still smiling. “It’s all new to me. I’m really seeing the process. It’s beyond a field trip to the farm.”
Garcia, 19, is a sociology major at North Idaho College. She spends much of her time watering, weeding and otherwise working on a one-acre plot along the education corridor—the Gathering Garden.
NIC partners with the Kootenai Environmental Alliance to create the Gathering Garden, an all-volunteer effort to build an urban farming and garden education center. Garcia works as an intern for KEA.
“This is an environmentally-conscious community,” said Garry Stark, NIC assistant director of Facilities Operations. “The community stands behind that. They want to help out. This is going to be the show point.”
Kootenai Environmental Alliance hopes to transform what started as an unused slash pile into a true gathering place, a site for education about organic gardening, said KEA Executive Director Adrienne Cronebaugh.
“We want to connect people with the food that feeds them,” Cronebaugh said. “We need to be conscious of our local food web.”
KEA has also partnered with the Work Ready Program, a five-step employment readiness training program that gives at-risk teens the opportunity to learn the skills for employment in Idaho’s two biggest industries: hospitality and agriculture. Through working on the Gathering Garden, the Work Ready interns will gain experience in organic growing practices, water conservation and tool safety as well as marketing, customer service and handling money. Cronebaugh said that NIC was both receptive and supportive of the Gathering Garden.
“We want to incorporate the college into the garden because they have so many great departments that could benefit from it -- like environmental science,” Cronebaugh said. “NIC can enrich what we’re doing.”
Stark agreed that the Gathering Garden will help faculty by expanding their curriculum. Herbs grown in the garden can be used by students in the culinary program, for instance. A pumpkin patch will be used by the Children’s Center.
But the garden will be more than a college resource, Stark said. It will be a community resource, too. Much of the good grown in the Gathering Garden will go to local food banks. Community members will have the opportunity to work in the garden in exchange for some of the food grown there, or to buy food from the garden.
Currently in the building phase, the garden will offer tours. Community members will be able to learn how to compost and what they can grow in their own backyards.
“It’s going to be a first-class operation,” Stark said. “It’s something for the community, just like the college is.”When she surveys the one-acre plot, Garcia said she sees countless possibilities and applications for the garden: food security, nutrition, sustainable agriculture and more.
“I see a lot of potential here,” she said.
In the raised beds, vegetables are already sprouting: tomato, zucchini, lettuce, carrots, corn, asparagus, beans. No pesticides are used; the garden grows with only water, soil, sun and the care of volunteers. Native, drought-tolerant shrubs have also been planted in the garden as examples of decorative plants that don’t require a lot of water.
Garcia’s work on the Gathering Garden has given her a greater appreciation for public lands and public spaces.
“I’m very excited,” she said. “We’re converting nothing into something.”
NIC student Maria Garcia moves soil at the new Gathering Garden in the Education Corridor.
Volunteer Janet Torline, right, and NIC student Maria Garcia take care of NIC’s one-acre plot of land designated as a community garden.
NIC student Candy Hawkins inspects sunflowers in the Gathering Garden located in the Education Corridor.