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New campus garden blooming with activity

Kira Hewett, 4, of Bemidji, helps her mother, Bemidji State University student Tara Shindelan (not pictured), pick a basket full of red tomatoes Thursday at BSU's new campus garden located at the corner of 16th Street Northeast and Birch Lane Northeast. Twenty-eight plots are leased out by BSU's Sustainability Office to BSU students and faculty. Pioneer Photo/Monte Draper

What was once intended to become a parking lot is now a prolific, organic vegetable garden located on the Bemidji State University campus.

Officially named "Gitigaan," which means "garden" in Ojibwe, BSU's first-ever campus garden opened in May and is situated at the corner of 16th Street Northeast and Birch Lane Northeast, across from the A.C. Clark Library.

Nineteen students and faculty members from BSU marked their garden plots with a green thumb this summer and many are now seeing their work pay off in the form of bundles of colorful produce.

BSU student Tara Shindelan and her two children, Kira Hewett, 4, and Marcus Hewett, 8, stopped by the campus garden Thursday afternoon to check on their five garden plots. Kira brought with her a basket and took no time filling it to the brim with her favorite garden item - bright, red tomatoes.

"I like tomatoes," Kira said cheerfully.

Shindelan said she decided to use the campus garden because it was close to the dorm she lives in.

"It's already plowed, and it's fenced, so my kids don't run off," she said. "I was like, 'Sweet! Less work for me.'"

Several years ago a house occupied the parcel of land where the garden now sits. The property was donated to the university, but the house was eventually removed. Later, a playground was all that remained on the property.

Conversations took place among interested parties about the future of the land, including the possibility of developing a parking lot to allow for more student and faculty parking near campus. In the end, however, a very different idea - using it for a campus garden - received the final approval.

Crystal Rayamajhi, a recent graduate of BSU, was hired by BSU's Office of Sustainability to work as a landscape consultant for the summer. She, along with a group of students, tilled the soil, worked in manure (aged horse droppings), built a fence and designated the plots.

Turning the land into a garden was no easy task, as the ground mostly consisted of gravel and sand. Much of the work was done by the students' hands. But their hard work paid off, and now with the dog days of summer in full swing, some of the students decided to have a little fun.

"I started a biggest tomato contest," BSU student Abbey Lindee said. Lindee worked throughout the summer on the garden, particularly with helping to build the fence.

Funding for the garden stems from a fee students pay called a "green fee." Beginning in 2008, BSU students began paying a $5-per-semester fee that goes toward projects that make the university more environmentally friendly, such as the campus garden. The fee also pays for the yearly salary of Erica Bailey-Johnson, BSU's full-time sustainability coordinator.

Students and faculty members currently pay $5 a year to rent a plot in the campus garden. Next year, rates could increase for faculty because they do not have to pay the green fee.

"We wanted it to be cheap for students," Rayamajhi said.

As Rayamajhi walked through the garden Thursday, she pointed at a tall weed that one garden tenant left growing.

"It's lambs quarter," she said. "It's a weed, but it's actually edible. It's good sautéed with a little olive oil."

Towering sunflowers, rows of tomatoes, Swiss chard, cauliflower, onions, squash, strawberries, broccoli, cucumbers, zucchini, ground cherries, eggplants and more fill the urban campus garden. But it is not only the food that attracted its users.

The garden allows for students to socially interact with others interested in growing food. The patch also beautifies the neighborhood, reduces some food budgets and offers nutritious food. All the food grown in the garden is organic, meaning it is grown without the use of synthetic pesticides and chemical fertilizers.

Rayamajhi said she has been trying to encourage gardeners to donate any extra food grown in the garden to the Bemidji Community Food Shelf.

"This garden was very much student-led," Bailey-Johnson said. "It really looks nice. I rarely saw people using the property when it was just a playground. Now I see people stopping by to look, and students using it."

BSU student Dylan Sievers, who also helped put in the garden, said this summer was his first time gardening.

"I think I did pretty well, although there are few things I would do differently," he said. "I like that the garden is so close to campus and it really forces students to see it."

One of the concerns for the future of the campus garden is accommodating more students in the future, Rayamajhi said.

"And keeping cabbage butterflies off the greens," she added.

Fluttering from leaf to leaf in the garden was a handful of cabbage white butterflies, which lay eggs on the leaves of vegetables like kale and cabbage that hatch into larvae, also called cabbage worms. The larvae can be a deterrent to gardens as they feed on the centers of leaves such as those on kale and cabbage.

Rayamajhi said she might try putting up some netting over some produce in the future to keep the butterflies off.

Community gardens are gaining popularity in Bemidji area, as several have popped up in recent years, including the Nymore community garden and Solway Elementary School community garden.

"It's really important for people to know the basics behind where their food comes from," Bailey-Johnson said.

Rayamajhi said the general public and area students are welcome to visit the garden and anyone can pick the fruits and vegetables growing along the outside of the garden fence for free.