Across the Northern Arizona University campus, students are making a big impact on three important sustainable gardening initiatives—the SSLUG, SNAIL, and Shand gardens. While these gardens differ in their individual missions, they are united by a common thread: enabling students to work toward greater sustainability by minimizing their gardens’ dependence on city water and fossil fuel, and minimizing inorganic chemicals in the environment.
The Sustainable Living and Urban Gardening (SSLUG) Garden is the largest gardening effort on campus. Student volunteers work to blend native plants with traditional fruits, vegetables, and herbs. Professors also use the garden as a teaching tool in a broad spectrum of classes by educating students about sustainability, local food production, and the value of community service.
Jan Busco, Northern Arizona University’s Campus Organic Gardener and the caretaker of the SSLUG Garden, says the student volunteers receive more out of the experience than just food.
“A lot of the students work with others in the garden who have different perspectives from themselves, and they learn from each other,” Busco explains. “And then there’s the empowerment that comes from growing your own food.”
The food grown by students in the SSLUG Garden is made available to the NAU community. Extra food is donated to both the Louie’s Cupboard food bank, which serves university students, and the Flagstaff Family Food Center, which provides meals to underserved members of the Flagstaff community.
The members of the Students Nurturing Alternatives in Landscaping (SNAIL) club maintain their very own sustainable garden. The SNAIL Garden is a completely student-run enterprise, where members act cooperatively for the good of the garden. When a plant yields food, it is harvested and divided among the group based on labor.
In addition to the club, students ranging from freshmen to graduate students use the garden as a study tool. Senior biology major and president of SNAIL, Joel Thomas, says that the club is a great way for students to learn about sustainability.
“It’s perfect for students who want to know where their food is coming from and what is going into the production of that produce,” Thomas explains. “Students also get a sense of teamwork and responsibility out of it.”
The Shand Garden, named for late NAU biology Professor Richard Shand, is a teaching and research-focused garden. Students enrolled in the sustainable botany course through the Biology Department maintain the garden and use it as an active lab. In the class, students learn the theoretical aspects of plant life, and then witness those concepts first-hand.
Students also conduct research projects in the garden. For example, one project involves growing plants in bales of straw instead of soil, which can shed light on the process of growing food in urban environments where space is limited, natural soil is scarce, and potting soil is expensive.
Dr. Peggy Pollak, who teaches the sustainable botany course and cares for the Shand Garden, receives a lot of positive feedback from students who work in the garden.
“Every semester, I ask my students, ‘Why garden?’” Pollak says. “Satisfaction, pride in producing something yourself, getting your hands dirty, and having a lasting, positive impact on NAU. These are all things students love, and that’s what sustainable gardening can provide.”