Picture the archetypal college campus: venerable Gothic stone buildings, maple leaves aflame in autumn colors and students lounging with books on a wide, open lawn.
Grassy quadrangles are staples on most college campuses. But maybe all that soil can be put to a different use: a handful of colleges and universities have planted small student-run farms on formerly grassy areas in recent years. This seems to raise the broader question of whether the quad, which gobbles water and fertilizer but produces very little, is outmoded in an era of sustainable thinking.
Luscious greenery doesn’t grow naturally where I went to school, the University of Colorado, Boulder, which sits on arid plains at the foot of the Rocky Mountains. Yet that didn’t stop the wife of the university’s first president from resolving in 1876 to substitute a lawn for the wiry plains grasses surrounding Old Main, at the time the university’s only building.
A historical landscaping document tells how soil was distributed by the wagonful and grass seed was distributed across the campus. Students chased cows away and threw weed-pulling parties to keep the lawns manicured.
In recent years, the university has been focused as much on environmental sustainability as on beautification. The school has at least a dozen LEED-certified buildings and several installations of solar panels. It has yet to plant crops or pull up the grass from campus lawns, as some schools have, however.
“We’re trying to bust open the notion of what a front lawn might look like,” said Philip Ackerman-Leist, an associate professor at the college who directs the project. He said the reason that Americans like grassy lawns so much is the country’s British roots. “The notion of the lawn is an import from the well-grazed areas of the British Isles,” he said, joking that a herd of sheep might be even better suited for a college quadrangle than a garden.
Mr. Ackerman-Leist said 25 students had built their college garden in five days as part of an Edible Landscaping class. They focused on aesthetics and on limiting costs. “It’s difficult to eat local and buy local and do it on a budget,” he said, so the project teaches students and others in the community how local food can be produced right on the lawn.
Similarly, students at Duke University started the Duke Campus Farm in 2010, and much of what the farmers produce is served in Duke’s own dining halls. That same year, students at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, began a project that they call permaculture (permanent agriculture), turning a quarter-acre of campus lawn into a vegetable garden.
“We said, ‘Let’s take a look at these areas where we don’t need grass lawns, and let’s grow some food there,’” said Ryan Harb, the sustainability manager for dining services on the Amherst campus. The university now has two permaculture gardens and has begun building a third. Mr. Harb said the gardens had produced over 1,000 pounds of food under the stewardship of 1,200 to 1,300 volunteers. The food has gone to the university’s dining halls and a campus farmers’ market.
This month the university will play host to an international permaculture conference in the hope of introducing successful campus farming to other institutions. “I think we’re at the cusp of building a network of colleges and universities around the country” devoted to sustainable agriculture, Mr. Harb said.
Campus lawns do serve a purpose beyond sunbathing or reading. I remember students filling the quads of the University of Colorado, Boulder, with flags representing Holocaust victims, for instance, and protesting immigration legislation.
Maybe lots of college campuses will start converting their sprawls of grass into more environmentally productive places. Do you, and the college students you know, think they should?
NOTE: UMass will offer a new Permaculture class this fall open to all students. If you are interested, check out: PLSOILIN 197G – Intro to Permaculture.