Campus Life

An Innovative Garden Brings Food for Thought to a Mason Field

By Buzz McClain

In the future, one of the welcome harbingers of spring on the Fairfax Campus of George Mason University will be the blossoms of the Innovation Food Forest. In fact, students returning in late summer will find apples and plums hanging from leafy limbs; berry-laden shrubs will tempt passersby; and vegetables, typically associated with farms and not university campuses, will appear amid colorful flower-lined pathways.

But right now the food forest is a loamy work in progress.

Mason students Moira Skelley, Samir Jamal, and Maura Schmidt participate in the construction of the Innovation Food Forest. Photo by Evan Cantwell.

Mason students Moira Skelley, Samir Jamal, and Maura Schmidt participate in the construction of the Innovation Food Forest. Photo by Evan Cantwell.

On a raw March day, ground was broken for the project by a team of students from various walks of life with a common interest. The students, who endured the bitter cold pushing wheelbarrows and digging in the small field next to Innovation Hall, were taking part in the second Permaculture Design Certification course offered by the Mason Sustainability Institute.

The hands-on session was part of an eight-day course held during spring break. The idea for the Innovation Food Forest came to Elizabeth Torrens, a horticulture graduate from Iowa State University who applied for the grant through the Patriot Green Fund, following last year’s first permaculture offering. “As a result of that class I designed the project and came up with a grant proposal,” she says. “It’s been in the works a year.”

Torrens, who works at the Mason Enterprise Center, says a permaculture garden is one that lives up to the prefix “perma.” “It’s not the kind of garden you dig up and replant every year,” she says. “The whole idea is to have a little Eden of food plants.”

Volunteer helped . Wayne Weiseman, who taught the Sustainability Institute course center. Photo by Evan Cantwell.

Students, faculty, staff, and community members helped plant trees over several days. Photo by Craig Bisacre.

Unlike other food gardens, this one is designed to be experienced, as students stroll from the Johnson Center to buildings to the south. “There will be no fencing around this,” says Danielle Wyman, outreach and community engagement manager of the Mason Office of Sustainability. “We want to engage folks and show them firsthand what a food forest is. We want it to be a little taste of what you can do in your backyard. It’s a very small way to filter that into the consciousness of the folks here. And we’d like it to be a peaceful interaction with nature.”

Besides being next to Innovation Hall, the garden itself is innovative, Wyman says, “because although planting food is something we’ve been doing for thousands of years, historically it’s not really something you do on campus. We’re adding edibles into the landscape design. It requires shifting your thinking a little bit.”

Students walking through the food forest eventually will encounter signage describing the crops. QR codes on the signs will add a dimension beyond the campus and might, for example, link the plant in front of you with an external location such as the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin, Texas, for more information.

The Food Forest was plotted out in the field beside Innovation Hall. Photo by Evan Cantwell.

The Innovation Food Forest was plotted out in the field beside Innovation Hall on the Fairfax Campus. Photo by Craig Bisacre.

The 27 students in the compact certification course included Mason undergraduates, as well as one from Virginia Commonwealth University and one from Ithaca College in New York; several regional organic farmers; a Mason art professor; and an employee from the Environmental Protection Agency and her husband.

“What they had in common was a strong interest in returning to the land and doing something productive and positive and regenerative with the land,” says Wyman. The course was taught by Wayne Weiseman, a farmer, contractor, herbalist, renewable energy expert, and director of the Permaculture Project LLC.

And if all goes well, next spring there may be some trees bearing fruit. Will students be allowed to help themselves to the fresh snacks?

“Absolutely,” Wyman says.

The Permaculture Design Certification course takes place again next spring break. For more information, see the website for the Mason Sustainability Institute.

To read more stories about Mason, check out the university’s News site.

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