There’s no place Holt Knight would rather spend a Friday afternoon than at the University of North Florida’s student garden weeding and laying compost.
Nestled on the north side of campus, the Frederick C. and Ophelia Tate Ogier Gardens is an acre patch where Knight spends much of his free time. It might sound like hard work, but many UNF students savor the opportunity to get back to nature. On any given day, any time of year, you’ll find countless fruits and vegetables in various stages of growth tended by a dedicated group of students.
While there’s plenty of work to be done, the student garden also offers a retreat from the fast pace of higher education — an ideal spot for students to relax on a well-used hammock and find some peace and quiet.
Planting the seed
The idea for a simple vegetable and herb (VERB) garden was first presented by Katrina Norbom, a former student, years ago when she served as a volunteer coordinator for the UNF Wildlife Sanctuary.
Bruce Ogier, a 1974 UNF graduate and Student Affairs Community Council founding member, loved the idea of a student garden on campus. An avid gardener himself, Ogier grew up with a green thumb alongside his Grandpa Tate. He began maintaining his own garden when he was just a boy. Ogier said his parents were more than happy to accommodate his request for a plot, knowing the work and time involved. Though he admits he probably took on more than he could handle, it taught him about hard work, instilled discipline and provided a sense of accomplishment that would feed his lifelong love of nature.
Ogier has planted gardens just about everywhere he’s lived. In early adulthood, he even worked out arrangements in apartment complexes to provide property maintenance in exchange for the space to keep a small garden. He jumped at the chance to share his passion with the students at his alma mater. He and his brother, Frederick, provided start-up funding for the project in 2009.
The garden exploded in popularity and quickly outgrew its original location — a small space on the west side of campus. When the current plot became available, it was clear that expensive improvements were needed before it could grow into a viable home for the garden. Ogier, who never stopped believing in the project, provided the financial support in 2012 needed to make the move. The new garden was officially dedicated the following year and named for Ogier’s parents. Since then it’s continued to prosper, harvest after harvest.
Student health and education
The Ogier Gardens, part of the University’s Department of Health Promotion, is in a unique position to address the top concerns of UNF students as identified in a health-focused survey last year — nutrition, obesity and mental health. The garden encourages students to eat better and become active while providing a serene environment where students can reflect and unwind. The students who get involved reap countless rewards.
“The biggest benefit for me has been the knowledge I’ve gained, as well as the work ethic,” said Knight, who is considering a career in farming. “It has drastically shaped my perspective and my direction in life.”
Mallory Schott, a senior who got hooked on gardening her freshman year (see profile on page 10), serves as a health educator. She is also the head of the Adopt-A-Bed program, as well as co-president of the Organic Project Club with Knight.
“There is a greater appreciation when you grow your own food,” Schott said. “We enjoy sharing good food together in the garden. There is a real sense of community.”
The garden has become an ideal outdoor, hands-on learning laboratory utilized by a variety of disciplines for outdoor and experiential learning. Health and nutrition professors have brought their coursework to life by conducting classes in the space. Even public relations instructors have developed hands-on learning projects geared toward marketing the Gardens. Likewise, area schoolchildren and campers at UNF’s Summer Eco Camp visit the Ogier Gardens to learn more about planting and eating right. Garden staff, along with a number of frequent gardeners, also present open workshops on gardening and nutrition. Knight, who leads a Composting 101 workshop, said he enjoys teaching students how they can compost their table scraps, whether they’re in a home or apartment. Other workshops teach the basics of organic gardening and permaculture, as well as what’s in the foods we eat. The crops grown in the Gardens serve as learning tools and offer evidence of what can be accomplished by a team. They also promote fellowship and community on campus.
In the Ogier Gardens, there’s always plenty growing or ready to be harvested. Winter vegetables include broccolini, cauliflower and lots of greens. Early spring — just after the last frost — is a good time for corn, cucumbers, okra, eggplant, watermelon and even peanuts.
Summer harvests are a bit slimmer but include bush beans, tomatoes, Egyptian spinach and peppers. Fall is perfect for beets, fennel, lettuce, dill and onions. Root vegetables like carrots, radishes and turnips do best in fall, winter and early spring. The garden’s offerings are diverse, including everything from native Florida vegetables to exotic fruits from far-away locales. Harvests often include a handful of standards — bell peppers, various greens and tomatoes — along with a few more unique crops like edible flowers and purple carrots.
Kevin Anderson, coordinator of the Ogier Gardens, and his predecessor, Carmen Franz, worked diligently to create a partnership with UNF’s Osprey Café, the campus cafeteria operated by Chartwells, and received a stamp of approval from the USDA. Today, the garden sells produce to the Café with regular deliveries made several times a month. Garden staff alerts students via social media that there are Ogier veggies on the menu, and the Café features the garden’s offerings on the cafeteria video screens. Anderson believes the garden is creating a culture change around food on campus. Not only does it bring new meaning to the term “locally grown,” but students get an opportunity to sample foods unfamiliar to them, such as moringa, a tropical vegetable that garden staff distributed in the Café last semester. Student volunteers staffed a booth with information about the benefits of the superfood while giving away smoothies made in their very own bicycle blender.
“We want to demystify certain healthy foods and demonstrate how easy it can be to grow them yourself,” said Anderson, who also chairs the local urban agriculture subcommittee of the Duval Food Policy Council, which works to provide greater access to local, healthy foods through education and outreach.
Anderson is also active in the slow food movement and was one of 240 citizens selected by Slow Food USA to represent the U.S. at the 2014 Terra Madre, a gathering and celebration of good, clean and fair food that took place in Turin, Italy last October. Anderson’s work has inspired students to also become involved in a number of healthy eating endeavors aimed at promoting sound farming practices and eradicating hunger through a focus on locally produced foods. Last year, the University hosted a World Food Day event and was a stop on the 2014 Tour De Farm, which drew visitors from across the region.
Center of activity
The garden is more than fruits and veggies. The goal is to promote a sense of community through events like movie nights and yoga sessions, in addition to regular farming and nutrition workshops. A highlight event is the annual Harvest Festival co-hosted with Osprey Productions. How-to demonstrations, canning lessons and herbal tea workshops are also scheduled throughout the year.
Everyone is invited to participate in the workshops or work in the Gardens — even those from the greater Northeast Florida community. Many student groups participate in the Adopt-A-Bed program that provides students free space for gardening, along with materials and guidance from garden staff.
Planting might seem a bit intimidating at first for novice gardeners, but there are always opportunities available to learn the tricks of the trade. General volunteer times are offered three days a week, including almost all day Wednesday and Friday. There is never a shortage of work to be done. Every garden requires seeding, mulching, pruning, irrigation maintenance and weeding — lots of weeding. But the payoff is definitely worth it — volunteers are rewarded with free produce for their labor.
The next phase
The Gardens has experienced an explosion in popularity, but that growth has brought with it some challenges. Mother Nature’s growing season doesn’t always coordinate ideally with University semesters, causing crop duration and variety to be somewhat limited. The garden is also lacking an ideal spot for seedlings. Plant starts are either left vulnerable to nature’s wrath or moved to the vestibule of the Student Wellness Complex, along with plants that need to be sheltered during freezes. That will change soon thanks to the continued generosity of the Ogier family. A new greenhouse named in honor of Ogier’s Aunt Joyce, an avid gardener and long-time member of the Southside Garden Club who passed away in 2014, will soon be built.
“I am very proud that my cousins and family members came together to help fund the Joyce Tate Brannam Greenhouse,” Ogier said. “The greenhouse is being named after her to celebrate her memory and commemorate a much-needed permanent addition to the Gardens.”
Plans for the new addition are well under way, and student farmers hope to be using the new greenhouse by the end of the year.
For more information about garden activities and how to get involved, visit the Ogier Gardens on Facebook at www.facebook.com/UNFGardens.
Learn more about Bruce Ogier and his passion for gardening.