Growing a Sustainable Garden, Prairie, and Land Ethic

September 13, 2021

Vishva Nalamalapu

In the southeast corner of the Grinnell College campus lies a plot of land. And on that plot of land lies the College Garden: 23 raised beds, berry bushes, a prairie patch, a garden shed, a hoop house, compost piles, and more. Produce flows out from the raised beds on either side of the central path and a squash gazebo marks the end. All together, “It looks exciting and mysterious,” says Athena Frasca ’23.

Students preparing produce
Athena Frasca ’23, Max Sorenson ’22, and Jacy Highbarger ’22

When land stewardship apprentices Frasca, Jacy Highbarger ’22, and Max Sorenson ’22 arrive at the Garden at 8:30 a.m. each morning, they can hear the steady buzz of Japanese beetles. “We don’t like them,” Frasca says. So, cups of soapy water in hand, they go on “Japanese beetle patrol,” sweeping the pests off the plants and into their cups.

Then the land stewardship apprentices and Jon Andelson ’70, professor of anthropology, gather at a picnic table under the shade of some pines to discuss their projects for that day. Those projects are wide ranging, from mulching to watering to weeding to building and maintaining infrastructure. And once or twice a week, they harvest the produce they work so hard to grow.


In the summer of 2020, the College Garden produced 1,300 pounds of produce, 90–95% of which they donated to Mid-Iowa Community Action, which supplies food to families in Poweshiek County living at or under 175% of the poverty line.

Questioning Conventional Land Ethics

Mid-morning when the temperature has risen and they have worked for a few hours, the land stewardship apprentices and Andelson take a break. A break from the physical work, however, does not mean a break from the mental and emotional work. Most days, they discuss a topic related to land stewardship such as Black farmers or women-led sustainable agriculture movements.

Through these discussions, visiting local farms, and their gardening, the students have advanced their understandings of land stewardship and their roles in it. “A part of this position isn’t just physically managing land, but actually developing a mental, emotional concept of a land ethic,” explains Highbarger. And their concepts of a land ethic all prioritize land stewardship. Especially after visiting local farms, Frasca now feels more of an urgency to discuss unsustainable relationships with land and to make those relationships more sustainable.

For Andelson, who has long been doing this work, this summer has not significantly changed his land ethic. Rather, he says, “Through these students, my passion for the land has been sustained and nurtured.”

professor watering plants
Jon Andelson ’70

Learning from the Past, Imagining the Future

Another part of the land stewardship apprentices’ positions and one that also has a large impact on their understanding of land stewardship is managing the prairies on Mac Field, Macy House, and the athletic fields. Under the supervision of Chris Bair, environmental and safety coordinator, they plant, weed, and record species in the prairies. Highbarger explains the importance of this work: “In addition to looking into sustainable land management and sustainable land use, actual prairie conservation and restoration is absolutely essential to land stewardship and taking care of the earth.”

The combination of their garden and prairie work has been a powerful one. “It’s really important that we think of these things together,” says Highbarger. This is especially true given the local historical context. In 1850, 80% of Iowa was prairie. By 1950, 99.9% of the prairie was destroyed, and much of it became farmland. Andelson thinks this was “the most complete and the most rapid destruction of an ecosystem in human history.”

Grinnell College Grow sign with garden at grinnell dot edu address and student harvesting
Jacy Highbarger ’22

There is presently a large gap between how sustainable prairies and conventional farmlands are, but there is also potential to bridge that gap. “Prairie represents a healthy ecosystem, and industrial agriculture represents a sick ecosystem. We’ve got to make our agriculture more like the prairie,” explains Andelson. In the College Garden, they do just that by using sustainable methods such as gardening without chemicals and using hügelkultur, a German technique that reduces the need for fertilizer.


Through their dual roles as sustainable gardeners and prairie managers, the land stewardship apprentices imagine a future that sustainably combines Iowa’s predominantly prairie past and its predominantly farmland present. And while they are imagining that future, they are also making it a reality, one plot at a time.

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