The Community Garden Opens to Volunteers and Local Residents

Volunteer members from the nearby local communities joined University employees for the opening of the Monmouth University Community Garden on Saturday, April 26. The garden, now approaching its fifth summer of operation, has donated approximately eight tons of produce to various charities across Monmouth County in the past four years.

The garden lies adjacent to the tennis courts along Beechwood Avenue and consists of 37 garden plots divided into two sections: a community side where all of the crops that are harvested multiple times throughout the year are donated to philanthropic organizations, and a private section available for rent to people in the community.

Dr. Robin Mama, Dean of the School of Social Work (MSW), runs the garden with the help of an eight-member steering committee that consists of herself, Dr. Pedram Daneshgar, assistant professor of biology, Barbara Arrington, an instructor in the MSW, and five local volunteers from the county. Many factions of the University community and residents of the neighboring towns have had a factor in the garden’s growth over the previous four years.

“This has been a collaborative effort since it started,” Mama said. “We wanted a space where we would harvest and give to the community and a place where people can enjoy intersecting with the University.”

The garden was founded in 2009 by a former University graduate student, Sean Foran, as part of a project with the University’s Center for Community Health and Wellness. After securing the space for the garden, which was only half of its current size in 2009, Foran and the MSW solicited donations from area businesses and drummed up interest about the garden by lobbying with members of the community.

“When we got closer to opening the garden, Sean and I went door-to-door with the book ‘The Earth Knows My Name,’ by Patricia Klindiens with a piece of paper about the garden in it,” Mama said. “The response was amazing.”

The garden received a $2,000 gift card from Home Depot in Long Branch to purchase its initial sup¬plies, plants from Barlow’s, a flower farm and nursery in Sea Girt, and a $500 donation from Central Jersey Bank. Additionally, local volunteers installed the garden’s irrigation system.

“It was all a grassroots startup effort,” Mama said. She also explained that former members of University fraternity Tau Kappa Epsilon built the garden’s storage shed and that the environmental club has planted fruit trees on the garden grounds. “There has been a nice collaborative effort with groups and individuals from the community and we have had people who have rented plots every single summer,” she said.

Mercy Azeke, Dean of the Center for Student Success and Academic Advising, has rented a spot in the garden for the last three years. “I liked the idea of the being able to socialize a little bit with my colleagues and get to know people in my neighborhood,” Azeke, who resides in West Long Branch, said. “And to donate, that’s part of the joy of doing this – to give some to my neighbors.”

All of this year’s private plots have been rented for the summer, Mama said, and the crops on the community side are given a head start by being nurtured in the campus greenhouse located behind the Facilities Management building during the winter months.

To expand campus involvement in the garden, the University recently created a joint effort between students in science and first year seminar courses taught by Mama, Daneshgar and Dr. Merrily Ervin to cultivate the garden during the school year. “We thought it would be a unique way to teach them about gardening, and also about how to think about biology, plants and how to eat healthy in college,” Mama said.

Educating students about the origins of food and the underprivileged who battle hunger every day is an important aspect of the garden, Daneshgar said. “We eat all these things every day, but no one actually thinks about where it comes from. Students learn that making food is a process and it takes time and it’s a lot of work,” he said. “These kids also see that there is a need for food. When we go to these food banks… they get to see that food isn’t always available to everybody. I think it kind of changes their perspective on things a little bit. We hope it does,” Daneshgar added.

This year the garden will donate produce to 10 local charities, including the FoodBank of Monmouth and Ocean Counties in Neptune. “In Monmouth County, 1 in 10 people suffer from hunger and need food from the food bank. Fresh produce is difficult to obtain and all donations are greatly appreciated,” Marion Lynch,spokesperson for the FoodBank said.

Ken Kretsch, an Eatontown resident who just rented a garden plot for the first time, said he anticipates keeping the crops he grows this year but will give back in the future.

All of the produce in the garden is organically grown with seeds purchased from Burpee, a national seed supplier. A deer fence borders the garden’s perimeter and instead of using pesticides, natural insect deterrents like basil and mint plants are strewn throughout the garden.

All of the weeding is done by hand, which makes volunteers necessary for effective growth. “[Last year] we weren’t getting enough volunteers to come out and weed, so weed management became a problem and that affected our crop,” said Daneshgar.

Even with all of the volunteer labor and donations it has received, the garden has struggled to keep a balanced budget, according to Mama.

Other than its supplies, the garden’s primary expense is its wa¬ter bill, which is separate from the University’s bill. The garden’s main revenue stream is its private rental plots, which were just increased from $25 to $30 for the year in 2014. The MSW funds $1,000 to the garden each year, and other donations are received from the campus employees and environmental club. Donations are accepted through the MSW page on the University website.

Anyone interested in volunteering in the garden or learning more about it can attend the steering committee meetings on the second Monday of every month at 6 pm in the Magill Commons Club Dining Room.

PHOTO TAKEN by Paul Williams