USF Students Find Inspiration In Veggie Garden
TAMPA - At USF's Veggie Garden, one is as apt to hear squeals of delight as a sober discussion of the asexual reproduction of radishes. Blossoms can draw cheers; failure, observations on the lessons of nature. "Some people coming out of college don't know how to cook spaghetti," says 24-year-old Carlie Phaneuf, who planted her first garden in August. "Growing your food is a whole new ballgame, especially when you're starting with seeds." The Veggie Garden isn't part of a class. It's free and any student can sign up for a 6-by-3-foot plot. The gardeners work pretty much on their own, asking around for advice when they need it. Most are looking to save money on groceries, but they've gotten a lot more than free organic salad.Coming here between classes is relaxing, they say. Turning a speck of a seed into dinner for two is empowering. "We had enough beans to have a stir fry," says Gabrielle Hairabedian, a 21-year-old junior who shares a plot with her boyfriend, Jeff Sheridan. "That's an entire bag of beans we didn't have to buy from Sweet Bay." The garden started four years ago on the grounds of the Botanical Gardens at the University of South Florida. "This is the best year yet," says botanist Kim Hutton, the coordinator and No. 1 question answerer, according to the students. "I have about 25 gardeners and 10 on a waiting list." They include undergraduates and graduate students, first-timers and experienced gardeners. Some already have requested expansion to a second plot in the fall. That's all pretty unusual, says Bruce Butterfield, market research director for the National Gardening Association. Survey demographics don't drill down to the typical college age, about 18 to 24 years old, so he doesn't have hard data, but after 30 years of research, he has a pretty good idea of who's gardening. "They're the exception rather than the rule," he says of the USF students. "People of that age typically are into other things. I've not heard of many community gardens at colleges." The kids may just be joining the trend. Gardening purchases went up nationwide last year, Butterfield says, while other spending was dropping. "People want to feel more self-reliant and get back to basics," he says. Organic gardening is on the increase too - from 5 percent of household gardens in 2005 to nearly 20 percent last year - and college students are definitely interested in organically grown foods. That's what got Hannah Feig planting her first seeds in August. A 19-year-old freshman planning to major in engineering, she's a vegetarian and lives in a dorm. "I have a meal plan, but I don't always get the food I want," she says. At the Veggie Garden, her lettuces and onions surround a curious-looking tree-like centerpiece. "What's that?" Jeff says. A senior art major, the 22-year-old has experimented with herbs and veggies in apartment containers and is in his second year working a student plot. Along with the aforementioned green beans, he and Gabrielle have carrots and a lone fat radish, which came from the guy next door, whose radishes were reproducing like - but not just like - rabbits. "Celery," Hannah answers. "Celery. Wow." He studies the plant, which looks nothing like a bunch of celery in the supermarket. "How do you ...?" Hannah smiles and shrugs. "I don't know." That's part of the fun. Plant some seeds, cheer when some sprout, guess at what might happen next. If it's a handful of cherry tomatoes and a few lettuce leaves, you're richer than you were yesterday. Hannah, who shares her plot with a friend, made her first harvest at the end of November. "It was very cool," she says. "The plant, initially we weren't sure if it was lettuce. It was the only seed that sprouted, and we weren't sure if it was a weed, so we just waited to see." It was, indeed, Romaine lettuce - enough for two salads with some left over. The student plots are located near the front of the Botanical Gardens, on the southwest corner of the campus at Pine and Alumni drives. They're surrounded by a white picket fence. A pickle barrel full of tools stands by the gate and two hoses provide easy-access irrigation. Students can help themselves to small mountains of compost and mulch nearby. Grace's Hydro-Organic Garden Center in Temple Terrace provides an assortment of seeds at the start of the school year and a seasonal growing guide. Carlie, a senior biology major, likes to bicycle over between classes. "I sit here and eat my lunch, prune my little garden. It's so relaxing," she says, sitting at a picnic table insulated from exams by oaks and slash pines, begonias and bromeliads. She has wanted to grow a watermelon since she was a little girl burying seeds in the ground and walking away, so that was one of her first plants. "When I got my first little bud, I called my boyfriend. I was screaming into the phone, 'Babe, I've got a bud!'" The plants took off. "They got so big. They were growing over my bed and started getting into Jackie's green beans. They were bookin'." But alas, the blossoms never set fruit. Undeterred, Carlie plans to use what she learned and try again. "It's what it means to be a gardener," she says. "You have to deal with the environment and learn how to grow with the seasons. "Just knowing that little seed can provide you with food if you take care of it and nurture it is so astonishing."
Reporter Penny Carnathan can be reached at (813) 259-7612.