SARASOTA, Fla. (April 03, 2018) – It might seem hidden from most students and faculty, but USF Sarasota-Manatee’s new vegetable garden could soon be making an impact campuswide.
Launched in the spring by the student-run Biology Club, the garden tucked away at the campus’ northwest corner is starting to yield tomatoes and rosemary, and within a few weeks the peppers will be ready to harvest. Jovana Hoti, the club’s president, said the vegetables are the result of discussions among members a few months ago to create a garden using EarthBoxes, rectangular containers that use less water than conventional planters.
Ten boxes are in use now behind the campus’ engineering facility past the basketball court, and a dozen more are on order as the club looks to expand operations during the fall growing season.
Part of the expansion’s idea is to produce herbs and vegetables for use by the Campus Café. When that happens, students, staff and faculty will be assured that some of the vegetables in their soups, salads and entrees are locally grown.
“It doesn’t get more locally sourced than that, having produce grown right on campus,” said Dr. Joe Askren of the College of Hospitality & Tourism Leadership, which oversees the café. “Given the trend toward fresh, locally sourced ingredients, this is a terrific program for the café to be involved in.”
Hoti, who spearheaded the idea, said she remembered the excitement of harvesting tomatoes as a student at Suncoast Polytechnical High School in Sarasota and thought why not bring that same sense of accomplishment to USFSM’s Biology Club?
“I just remember how much fun it was for each of us taking care of the plants and seeing them germinate and produce different vegetables,” she said.
So she and club Vice President Nicole Bill floated the idea past club members, and within a couple of months the group was busy setting up boxes and sowing seeds. Each unit costs $50 and comes with soil and other growing materials.
The club’s advisor, Assistant Professor of Biology Dr. Christelle Bouchard, was quick to embrace the idea.
“Growing food in EarthBox containers is easy, and the food you grow is guaranteed to be fresh,” she said. “The project would require only 15 students dedicated to adopting an EarthBox container and the campus would then have a beautiful vegetable garden.”
EarthBoxes were invented by longtime Palmetto-based grower Robert “Blake” Whisenant Sr., who passed away in February at 88. Whisenant’s creation, which is in schools and garden centers across Florida, relies on a tube that juts out and channels water to a three-gallon reservoir at the bottom of the planter.
Water flowing into the reservoir is fed directly to root capillaries. Dolomite, a type of limestone, is added to the soil to provide nutrients and regulate the soil’s pH level. Hoti said the system simplifies the gardening process and that anyone using it can “have a green thumb and an enjoyable time.”
“You just have to follow the instructions,” she said. “When you put in too much water you’ll see it come out the bottom through the overflow drain, and you don’t have to water every day because of the reservoir.”
A sophomore with aspirations of attending graduate school to become a researcher, Hoti, 19, said EarthBoxes offer opportunities for learning. At the outset, club members were enamored by the idea of harvesting fresh veggies. However, Hoti said she sees an opening to talk about what’s going on beneath the surface from an academic viewpoint as well.
“By gardening with EarthBoxes we are adding to the beauty of the campus as well as to the biodiversity,” she said. “At some point, we will add native flowering plants well-adapted to this climate. Many are attractive and yield nectar excellent for pollinators and beneficial insects.
“It’s fascinating in a biological sense how mechanisms work together to create a sprout through a combination of cell growth and cell division, as well as sequentially morphological variation, during development,” she said.
The project is still in its infancy and there’s no telling how far it can go, said Hoti. Already, a dozen students – non club members – have expressed interest in having their own boxes, plus as interest by the café increases, so, too, will the variety and quantity of vegetables grown by club members.
“I think this could be an exciting opportunity for all students to stimulate their knowledge of gardening by growing fresh produce for themselves and for the university,” she said.