BlueRoots garden growing at IC
The greens, yellows and reds of summer produce are currently in full force in the BlueRoots Demonstration Garden at Illinois College.
The garden was launched last summer and continues to grow, this year resuming demonstration and research projects while adding new plots.
“Many IC students have no clue of the process of producing fresh produce, as such, I launched the program to provide a space for students and staff alike to explore the wonders of food production,” said Michael Woods, agribusiness coordinator and assistant professor of business. “Additionally, I am striving to advance a regenerative agriculture research plot that showcases how backyard gardeners can benefit from cover cropping.”
Woods and his family spend many hours working with IC students to design and manage the projects, and cultivate and harvest the produce. This summer, Mathew Ragonjan '22 and Senaf Fayissa '22 have been on the garden crew, planting hundreds of plants and seeds that include pumpkins and gourds, Indian corn and broom corn, vegetables, cover crops, and flowers.
Fayissa, a biochemistry major who will begin studying for the MCAT in a few months, said he was originally planning to do chemistry research this summer. Limitations due to the pandemic meant he could only do that research part time, so the garden gave him the opportunity to get additional experience this summer.
"It was not what I expected to do this summer, but also I've been gaining what I hoped to gain from working there,” Fayissa said, adding that he has learned an important skill set. He has learned new skills like planting, harvesting, mowing, weeding, and other skills for taking care of the garden.
An ongoing project in the garden is regenerative agriculture research exploring the impact of cover crops on soil quality and the production of nightshade plants like tomatoes, peppers, eggplants and potatoes. While it’s recommended to rotate nightshade plants, Woods said many of the crops backyard gardeners plant in the Midwest are in this family, making it difficult to rotate them and depleting the soil. The project aims to learn more about how home gardeners could use cover crops to solve this problem.
Katie Elmore '21 and Sam Killday '21 helped establish the garden last summer. Elmore worked on building the research plot for nightshade plant cover cropping. The work she did included creating a garden map for the research, which requires the produce to be harvested and recorded, a variety of cover crops and control sections to be planted after harvest, and the sections to be replanted the same way each year so that researchers can track the production. Elmore was grateful to receive funding to work on the project, which she said allowed her “to get outside the classroom setting and conduct research that was directly related to my interests.”
“I mowed, weeded, mulched and re-mulched, planted, and harvested all the plants in the garden, and learned how to drive a Kubota tractor,” she said. “One of my favorite parts of my doing research and working in the garden was getting to harvest produce from the plants.”
"The BlueRoots Garden is just another means of showcasing how education in and about agriculture is central to a liberal arts education."
Last year, the produce was sold to the IC community with proceeds benefiting the garden, but this year the produce is being offered at no cost. Woods said he has plans for future initiatives, such as educational classes and garden tours for the surrounding community.
Woods said the garden is in keeping with IC’s heritage and early faculty member Jonathan Baldwin Turner’s vision. Turner, the father of the land grant university, advocated for practical and liberal arts education in agriculture, Woods explained.
“The BlueRoots Garden is just another means of showcasing how education in and about agriculture is central to a liberal arts education,” Woods said. “The goal is to showcase that everyone, regardless of connection to the agriculture industry, eats. Thus, it is valuable to have an understanding of how produce is grown, the environmental conditions needed for success and the beauty that a garden can add to one’s life.”
To learn more about the agribusiness management program at Illinois College, visit www.ic.edu/agribusiness.