On a Wednesday morning, Shelby Gresch (SFS’23) hunches over a basil plant. She cuts a few leaves from the top of the stem, exposing the buds below to the October sun.
“It’s sort of like a Medusa situation,” she says. “You cut off the head and then two shoots grow back.”
She works her way down a long row of basil, nicking a few leaves from each that she’ll later share with the chefs at Leo’s, a dining hall on-campus.
Charlotte Correiro (C’24) holds up a bok choy, its stalk pearly white and leaves flexed and shiny.
“This is the first bok choy we’ve grown,” she says. “I’m so excited about it. It looks perfect.”
Wednesdays are busy at the Hoya Harvest Garden, Georgetown’s new community garden developed by the Earth Commons located on the fourth floor patio of Regents Hall. On Wednesdays, Gresch, the garden’s manager, and student gardeners pick arugula, peppers, peas, beets, radishes, squash – whatever they’re growing in season – and carry the produce to the university’s food pantry, Hoya Hub, a resource for community members experiencing food insecurity.
A few hours later, Gresch will hand out samples of pesto she made from the garden at the on-campus farmers market. That afternoon, she’ll invite a visiting class to help her weed and layer compost over an empty bed.
But right now, before football practice starts and classes pick up, it’s quiet. Gresch’s favorite time.
“The birds are singing, the bees are waking up – it feels like the world is waking up and the garden is fresh and something new has always bloomed or the fruit has gotten bigger,” she says. “It’s amazing to see how much it changes.”
Gresch spent her senior year helping to plan and prepare for the new garden, one that uses sustainable agricultural practices, feeds the community and fosters dialogue and learning about food production and caring for the planet.
As an intern for the Earth Commons Institute, Georgetown’s hub for environmental and sustainability innovation, research and education, she and fellow team members toured urban farms around DC, met with local agricultural experts and leaders of schools with similar programs, worked with the Office of Sustainability, Facilities and Planning Management, other and Georgetown stakeholders to learn what community members wanted in a shared space.
In spring 2023, the Hoya Harvest Garden launched. And Gresch, now an Earth Commons post-baccalaureate fellow, gets to oversee its growth alongside two student stewards.
The Hoya Harvest Garden boasts 60+ different plant species – sunflowers, lavender, brussel sprouts, raspberries, carrots, herbs. They’re grown using sustainable agriculture techniques that promote a balanced ecosystem.
Since its launch, the garden has generated 8,400 servings of sustainable, local produce – 85% of which is donated to the Hoya Hub Food Pantry and a Catholic center in Washington, DC, that serves families facing food insecurity; and 15% served in Leo’s dining hall.
In addition to donated produce, the garden hosts events and hands-on learning experiences for students. Graduate students in the new master’s program, Environment and Sustainability Management, have conducted insect sampling; a Global Hunger class studied how urban gardens can combat food insecurity; a Science, Technology and International Affairs (STIA) class on water collected data from the garden’s weather station, which tracks precipitation and humidity to inform growing practices.
The garden, says Pete Marra, dean of the Earth Commons, is a living laboratory, where research, education and action come together for the environment.
“What appears to be a garden is so much more,” he said. “Yes, we’re growing food. But we’re also mending the soil, creating habitat and improving the ecosystem for insects and other pollinators. Birds now come here to harvest insects that weren’t there before. And now people are here, actively gathering and learning about the environment, whether they’re enjoying the green space or it’s part of their coursework, an internship or on their plates in the dining hall. The Hoya Harvest Garden is a new living classroom at the university.”
One of the aims of the garden as a living classroom is to foster dialogue, Gresch says. To get students thinking critically about the broader impacts of food production. About environmental and social issues beyond the Georgetown gates.
“Climate change and biodiversity loss are the major crises of our time,” Gresch says. “Something like this can foster a lot more biodiversity than your average campus landscape. Furthermore, it can produce a lot of food. I think that leads into a bigger conversation of, if we’re using our urban landscapes like this, why does that ethos not apply elsewhere?
“If you can come to care about something like this so deeply, it’s a gateway into larger issues.”
A few hours after Gresch and fellow gardeners drop off produce at Leo’s, about 30 students gather in the garden for their Environment & Society class.
“We get our hands dirty in a good way, literally, but we also explore what it looks like to help spaces become productive and invite people in as a community gathering space,” says Randall Amster, who teaches the class.
A few weeks earlier, Gresch had visited Amster’s classroom to talk about the garden’s sustainable planting techniques, such as planting flowering plants or grasses along the garden’s borders to create a habitat for pollinators. Now the class visited the space to leverage some of the skills they learned.
Amster hopes the experience piques students’ interest in the garden. And that it helps put a tangible face on issues they’ve learned about.
“What is the connection between what I’m eating right in front of me and food waste writ large or climate change or energy policy?” he said. “It really is about beginning to put some tangibility into some conversations that can feel abstract.”
Mrudula Chodavarap (B’26), a student in the class who’s studying business and sustainability, often passed by the garden, but this was the first time she dug in. The experience gave her an inside perspective on the people, techniques and resources it took to grow it. On a personal note, being there felt soothing.
“It makes me feel like I’m able to help the environment in my own little way,” she said.
A few days after the class visit, on Oct. 13, Earth Commons hosted the Hoya Harvest Festival, an annual celebration of sustainability, community and the harvest season, in the garden.
Charlotte Correiro (C’24), one of the garden’s student stewards, first became interested in working there after attending last year’s festival. It was not unfamiliar ground: During the COVID-19 pandemic, she had taken a year off to work on farms in Michigan, Rhode Island and Arizona. The experience cemented her interest in agriculture, and when she returned to Georgetown in 2021, she zeroed in on studying environmental biology and education.
Working in the garden, she says, is an extension of her academic and personal interests. She even spent this past summer teaching students at HoyaKids, a child care center for community members, about the garden, bringing in produce and showing them photos.
Abby Rich (SFS’25), the garden’s second student steward, grew up growing apple trees, cucumbers and zucchini in her family’s garden and managing a local farm store in high school. She was drawn to the Hoya Harvest Garden to impact the way it was grown – applying her knowledge of raised bed gardening and gardening in small spaces. But being there, she said, gave her a taste of home.
“It’s really good to be back in the garden,” she said. “I don’t think there’s anything more gratifying than growing something and being able to see your work come to literal fruition.”
Rich, a STIA major, plans to pair her interests in gardening and agriculture with her international development studies, and apply it on a global scale: “The best way I can see to combat [climate change] is through sustainable agricultural techniques,” she said.
Both Rich and Correiro work closely with Gresch to plan, plot and plant every inch of the garden. Gresch brings her own experience of experimenting with crops with her dad, a gardener and landscaper, in their family’s garden in Idaho. (Her first-grade class even took field trips out to the family’s pumpkin field.)
Now, she has a fresh view of ways she gardened sustainably then and what she would change now. She hopes the garden will provoke more conversations about sustainability – and that gardens can expand across campus. Being in the garden, she says, gives her hope.
“I think climate change is very scary, and it gives me hope to be able to enact change,” she said. “It is a very comforting space for me as well, to see the native bees return and see the biodiversity increase in real time. It gives me a lot of hope.”