The Grinnell College Garden was established in 2000 by a small group of students, faculty, and community members interested in promoting the idea of local foods.
The local foods movement was sweeping the country, and other expressions of the movement began in Grinnell at about the same time, including the creation of the town’s first community-supported agriculture (CSA) project, the formation of a buyers’ cooperative for organic and bulk foods, the addition of a second market day for the Grinnell farmers market, and the formation of the Grinnell Area Local Foods Alliance (GALFA).
The garden’s initial location was at the Lisle Dunham farm at Penrose and Sixteenth in the northeast corner of Grinnell. It covered about one-tenth of an acre, provided by the Dunhams free of charge.
Move to Park Street
After its third year, to increase ease of access and visibility, the garden was moved to the College campus, to an 80x80 foot empty space on the west side of Park Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues. Funding to pay two full-time student summer garden interns was provided by the College’s Center for Prairie Studies.
At its Park Street location, the garden’s focus was on annual vegetables, though herbs, strawberries, and a few pollinator-friendly plants were added over the years. Plantings were mostly directly in the ground, with a few raised beds used at times. President Osgood paid for a storage shed in which tools, hoses, and other paraphernalia were kept. The College’s Conard Environmental Research Area (CERA) donated a small greenhouse, but this was never fully integrated into garden operations.
The summer interns planned the garden each spring, planted seeds and starts, watered and weeded throughout the summer, organized volunteer work sessions, and harvested produce beginning in June and continuing through October.
Organic methods were generally followed, although sometimes commercial fertilizers were used (in addition to manure from a local farm) to maintain soil fertility. Water came from a nearby college-owned house.
In 2012, a modest number of fruit and nut trees were planted west of the garden site as part of a permaculture workshop sponsored by the Center for Prairie Studies.
Harvest from the garden was distributed in a number of directions.
Summer interns and volunteers could take what they wanted. On occasion in the summer, and more regularly in the fall, the interns and friends prepared local foods meals using garden produce and invited the campus community to share the meal. Otherwise, the bulk of the harvest went to the Grinnell office of Mid-Iowa Community Action (MICA), which maintains a food pantry. Rarely, some produce went to College Dining Services, but production levels were generally too low to be of interest to them. During these years, garden workers made no effort to track the amount of harvest coming from the garden.
Garden Moved to East of 1128 East Street
A major change in the garden took place in 2017. After learning that the College planned to eliminate the garden and re-purpose the Park Street site for housing, we asked President Kington if we could have a new location. With the help of Facilities Management (FM), a spot to the east of Pine Tree House (a.k.a. Food House, 1128 East Street), was selected and planning began for a new garden with a more ambitious vision.
Many people, both in and beyond the College, came together to turn the vision into a reality. Ann Brau, Lisle Dunham’s wife and a production scale vegetable gardener, agreed to serve as a paid garden consultant.
One of the first things that set the grander vision in motion was the donation by the parents of two current students of white oak lumber for constructing raised beds. A group of student volunteers, staff, faculty, and community members led by CERA technician Nick Koster — released briefly from his obligations at CERA by CERA manager and Prairie Studies Outreach Coordinator Elizabeth Hill — went to work and in short order built twenty-one raised beds, three of them three feet tall to be in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). In total, the raised beds and the hoop house have 1,812 square feet of production space.
A local farmer, Howard McDonough, donated rich, beautiful compost to fill the beds, and planting began.
Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, Iowa, donated seed and some starts, and more starts came from other local farmers.
FM donated a hoop house frame they no longer needed and brought our storage shed and compost bins from the old garden location. Nick supervised the completion of the hoop house and the installation of a drip irrigation system for all the raised beds (the water coming from Food House), as well as two compacted lime ADA-compliant paths. Pella Tree Service donated bark chips from trees that were coming down on campus to make way for construction that were used for making all other paths. FM ran a connecting sidewalk from East Street to the garden.
Explosive Growth in Productivity
The infrastructure of the new garden put it a quantum leap ahead of the old garden in terms of production capacity. Consequently, we hired three rather than two full-time summer interns to take care of the production basics of planning, planting, weeding, watering, and harvesting.
In the garden’s first year in the new location, we planted 46 varieties of vegetables and herbs, far more than in the past. The combination of rich compost and easy irrigation produced explosive growth, and we decided for the first time to measure the garden’s productivity. By the end of the growing season, the garden had generated just under 1,000 pounds of produce.
With the garden’s productivity in mind we approached Dining Services again, and this time they indicated an interest in receiving produce from the garden, a significant shift from their previous decision. About 90 percent of the first year’s harvest — washed and bagged or banded — went to Dining Services and was incorporated into various dishes in the general menus and by catering. Dining services praised the quality of what we brought them.
Infrastructure projects continued throughout the summer, but more work remained to be done at the beginning of the fall 2017 semester, as well as the bulk of the harvesting. For the first time, we felt the need to hire part-time student garden workers in the fall. They completed the harvest in late October and prepared the garden for over-wintering. In the spring, the same students selected seed to order, planted indoor starts, and transplanted the hearty starts outside once the weather warmed sufficiently. The summer crew took over the tasks once the semester ended, and this has been the general practice in subsequent years.
Recent Challenges: The Pandemic and the Derecho
The start of the pandemic in March 2020 caused disruption to garden operations. Students had to leave campus and prepare for remote learning, and we were without garden workers. Thankfully, a couple of students who lived off-campus received permission to work in the garden, and we managed to start a new set of plantings that spring. We continued in the summer with a slightly reduced crew, aided by some community volunteers following COVID precautions. One of the consequences of the pandemic was a complete alteration in the operation of Dining Services, which no longer needed produce from the garden. However, in the town of Grinnell food insecurity increased dramatically, and we decided to redirect our produce to Mid-Iowa Community Action (MICA), which operates a food pantry for families in need.
Just as the situation began to normalize, a second blow came in July in the form of a derecho, a powerful and destructive straight-line wind that swept across central Iowa and on into Illinois. On campus, hundreds of trees were downed or damaged, including a walnut tree and a silver maple that stood next to the garden. Large branches of the walnut smashed the plants in several beds. A major limb of the maple crashed down, destroying two raised beds, damaging two others, and obliterating the “squash gazebo” on the east side of the garden. Flying branches and debris punctured the plastic covering of the hoop house in half a dozen places. It was a grim scene, though it could have been worse. The irrigation system received only minor damage, and the plants in fifteen of the raised beds were spared. Clean-up and repairs took weeks. Somewhat to our surprise, despite the storm, the total harvest for the year was about the same as in 2019.
In the second year of the pandemic, students returned to campus and to in-person learning. We made the decision to continue to direct most of our produce to MICA. The total harvest for the 2021 growing season was about 1,800 pounds, 90 percent of which went to MICA. This was the largest annual harvest in the garden’s history. Our more careful attention to succession planting, companion planting, more permaculture plantings, and more mulching are making the difference as we continue to learn about the wonderful and rewarding world of gardening.