The Sprout at SFA garden, located along the southern wall of Stephen F. Austin State University’s Department of Agriculture Building, recently transformed into a bustling classroom as students enrolled in Dr. Jared Barnes’ fruit and vegetable production class engaged Nacogdoches residents in the science and art of horticulture.
“I wanted to create an environment where we reached out and built better relationships with the community,” said Barnes, assistant professor of agriculture in SFA’s Arthur Temple College of Forestry and Agriculture. “That has been, in my opinion, one of the problems we’ve had with horticulture. We are so focused on growing the plants, we’ve forgotten to build that connection with the community.”
Barnes challenged his students to tackle this issue by planning ‘An Edible Evening’, a free, family-friendly event during which students utilized their newly-acquired knowledge to guide participants through the entire process of gardening – from seed to harvest.
“One of my teachers once told me that you don’t understand something until you have to turn around and teach someone, so I think it’s a beautiful marriage where we’re educating students and cultivating the community,” he said.
As visitors freely strolled from station to station, each focusing on a different aspect of the gardening process, students illustrated horticultural techniques, answered questions and shared tips to help ensure a successful harvest.
Rene Bhattacharya, a senior horticulture major, explained that as winter approaches, gardeners are wise to consider purchasing row covers to protect plants, but it might not be for the exact reason one might think.
“A lot of people think that it is supposed to keep your plants warmer, but they (the row covers) only provide a four-degree difference,” Bhattacharya said.
While there is a minor increase in temperature, the cloth’s primary purpose is to protect vegetation from winter winds.
“When the wind hits the plants, it affects their ability to take up water, and they can become too dry,” she said.
Students answered a range of questions from community members throughout the evening, ranging from fertilizer recommendations to tips for growing vegetables indoors.
One person seeking such information was Dr. Bill Weber, professor and program director of SFA’s undergraduate rehabilitation services training program. Weber wanted to know what vegetables are best suited for the lighting conditions of a home atrium. Calvin King, a senior horticulture major, explained that leafy, shade-tolerant vegetables such as Swiss chard and lettuce are a great option for indoor container gardening.
To complete the full journey from garden to table, Barnes and students called on the skills of local chef and bakery owner Mike Cid. Cid, the owner of New Day Baking Company and former executive chef at SFA, prepared a selection of hors d'oeuvres from freshly harvested produce from the Sprout at SFA garden. When he is not at the Nacogdoches Farmer’s Market preparing foods from locally-sourced ingredients, Cid said he can be found tending his own garden plots located near Sprout at SFA’s previous location along Lanana Creek.
“Here in East Texas where there are so many gardens and so many farms and folks who raise cattle and chickens and everything, it’s kind of sad that we don’t have an end part to that here locally,” Cid said.
This passion for local food, as well as its potential boon to the local economy, guides Cid in his culinary pursuits. He said he is hoping to open a farm-to-table restaurant in downtown Nacogdoches, providing local farmers with an option to keep their produce and dollars in East Texas.
Barnes shares a similar commitment to local food and community, and finds a seemingly endless source of inspiration in the lush rows of leafy greens, tomatoes, snap peas and flowers of the Sprout garden.
“It’s kind of like the Field of Dreams perspective,” Barnes said, referring to the tag line of a popular movie. “If you build it, they will come.”