Teaching Sustainable Gardening at Pacific

by Patty A. Gray, Garden Program Director

Patty bike profle picAt University of the Pacific, one common experience that all first-year students share is to enroll in a series of courses called The Pacific Seminars, better known on campus as, simply, PACS. These seminars explore the question, “What is a good society?” while developing students’ critical thinking skills about significant personal, social, and political issues by means of extensive writing, reading, and class discussion. These are small-group classes where students get lots of individual attention from instructors and can form a close cohort with their classmates.

In their first semester, all students in all classes are following the same syllabus with a set of common readings. But in the second semester, they are offered a choice of 38 different topics, each one a special interest of the instructor. This spring, I offered one of these PACS choices, and you’d better believe I jumped at the chance to hook some fresh, young souls into the wonders of food growing.

“Sustainable Gardening” is a course that starts from the premise that a good society is one that provides its citizens with pure, nutritious food to eat in a way that does not deplete the earth by its production. An even better society is one in which its citizens possess the knowledge and skills to grow some of their own food, sharing food, knowledge and seeds in the process. Students are encouraged to move beyond being passive consumers of whatever is marketed to them as edible, and to become active, engaged citizens who exercise responsible food selection based on their social awareness of how food is grown, treated, transported and marketed.

One key way I try to activate their awareness is through hands-on work in the Robb Garden. Each student is planting and tending a small garden plot, selecting which varieties they want to grow, starting some plants from seeds, transplanting seedlings into their plots, and learning how to deal with weeds and insect pests that appear. In the end, they will harvest and eat the food they have grown.

Of course, they do plenty of reading and writing in the course. Each student is researching a topic related to sustainable gardening for a research paper that is their main focus in the second half of the course. In the first half, I have had them write three short, descriptive essays: the first describes their experience with seeds; the second is based on an interview with a gardener; and the third asks them to reflect on gardening as a form of civic engagement.

Each essay is peer-reviewed by three classmates, and one of the things I ask students to comment on is whether or not they think their classmate’s essay merits being published on this blog. When there is a consensus around an essay, and if the student agrees, it is put in the hopper for publication.

So this blog is about to be taken over by the voices of Pacific students. I hope you will enjoy reading their work as much as I have.

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