On the last Friday morning in January, a line of patrons grew behind the Agriculture Building, patiently awaiting the chance of first pick from a variety of freshly-harvested produce grown only a short walk away. At 11 a.m., the doors of Sprout garden market opened with an enthusiastic welcome from Dr. Jared Barnes, assistant professor of horticulture.
“Every Friday we have people coming in here from all diverse aspects of the campus and community,” said Barnes, who also serves as the market’s director. “They interact, and we build relationships with them.”
It is the establishment of these connections that guides Barnes and Dawn Stover, SFA Gardens research associate, as they expand the SFA Sustainable Community Education Garden. Stover helped establish the garden located along the eastern border of the SFA intermural field along Lanana Creek Trail in 2012. Now known as ‘Sprout,’ the garden area, composed of plant trials and raised beds available for rent, is living up to its name.
The tagline of Sprout is ‘a garden for tangible growth.’ This tangible growth, however, transcends the obvious reference to germinating seeds and thriving produce. By providing SFA students and the surrounding community an opportunity to engage with plants, work the soil and interact with others who share similar interests, the garden facilitates personal development, Barnes said.
In true professorial form, Barnes also takes time to foster intellectual growth among market patrons, sharing the history of certain cultivars available for purchase. Mâche, a mild winter green also known as corn salad, was once a staple forage of European peasants, he explained to a patron while sacking their purchase.
Thanks to the abundance of produce generated from the garden and ongoing trials, the market is now open once a week, year round, and offers a unique variety of colorful produce. This fall, Barnes conducted a trial of 15 Swiss chard cultivars, ranging in colors from hunter green to vibrant pink, to determine which varieties are best suited for the region’s fall and winter gardens.
“What we want to do is take all of this trial data and build it into user-friendly PDFs people can view on their iPad or download,” Barnes said.
This data will then be made available to local farmers and growers, providing them with solid science upon which to base their future plantings.
On campus, Sprout recently partnered with SFA Hunger Jacks, a student-led organization dedicated to alleviating hunger on SFA’s campus and in the surrounding community. As a result of this new partnership, Hunger Jacks now offers Fresh Food Fridays outside of the Baker Pattillo Student Center, providing the donated produce to students free of charge.
Dr. Miranda Terry, assistant professor of kinesiology and health science and Hunger Jacks faculty advisor, said the collaboration provides students with fresh, natural produce that is typically inaccessible on a college budget.
Barnes is also incorporating Sprout into his class curriculum. This spring, his herbaceous plants class will help produce cut flowers for the garden market, and during the upcoming Fall 2015 semester, his fruit and vegetable production class will focus on growing, marketing and distributing Sprout produce.
“You can learn about plants all day long, but it just doesn’t compare to being out here and working,” said Jordan McGee, a senior horticulture major who works for Sprout.
Non-students also have the opportunity to expand their knowledge of horticulture through Sprout. Retired superintendent and Nacogdoches resident Charles Bradberry worked steadily over a seed tray as patrons filtered in and out of the final January market. When Bradberry began volunteering with SFA Gardens three years ago, he was a novice.
“I’ve gone from someone who didn’t know anything about plants to someone who has built their own greenhouse.” he said.
Barnes and Stover have plans to establish volunteer Saturdays, providing more opportunities for individuals unable to volunteer during the week. They also plan to create an outdoor classroom environment in the garden area through informational signage that provides visitors with messages and facts about the produce growing.
“The question is how do you really make the garden something that’s remarkable, memorable, and also something that people feel invested in,” Barnes said. “Food and gardening is a way you can connect with others across the community.”
Photo by Robin Johnson