Ithaca Times

Garden by Ithaca College students aims at creating sustainable landscape

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Posted: Wednesday, August 15, 2012 12:00 am

Ithaca College senior Madison Vander Hill has been working as an intern through the summer to continue the development of the college’s new permaculture garden.

The garden occupies a space next to Williams Hall that was previously an organic garden run by the college’s environmental society that lost momentum. Now the garden contains edible plants, herbs and flowers like beach plums and echinacea available for the passersby.

“Permaculture itself is a way of designing how we use the landscape and what we choose to grow,” said Vander Hill. “And I’ve kind of approached it with the premise that if we’re going to plant something we might as well think very carefully about what we’re going to do with the land. And we chose permaculture as a design framework starting this garden project because the previous gardens that have used the space were student run, but the models just weren’t working well.

“We realized that we had to design something that would work well for this space,” she added. “So we looked into a lot more perennial plants that will come back from year to year and that need a lot less maintenance.”

There is hope that the new garden will demonstrate a new way of landscaping on the campus.

“We have so much space and we have plantings that are just ornamental,” said Mark Darling, IC’s Sustainability Programs Coordinator, who has been helping facilitate the project. “The idea is to move it away from being just ornamental to use local edible plants in the landscaping more so that that energy that we put into maintaining beauty is also providing food.

“[Traditional landscaping] provides food now for birds and deer, but it doesn’t provide human food,” he added. “So what we’re trying to do is shift that paradigm in the future.”

The idea was to have a garden that provided long-term and wide-ranging growth.

“Part of growing with perennial plants is that they’re not always as productive as annual varieties,” Vander Hill explained. “Our goal with this garden wasn’t to have a hundred pounds of tomatoes every year or something like that. We really wanted something that would be an edible landscape, but that would be sustainable and that we could have something in the middle of campus for the long-term that would still be really beautiful at all times of the year.

“More traditional gardens kind of go through an ebb and flow where during a lot of the year they’re not as traditionally pretty, they kind of go to rest for wintertime,” she added. “But this garden has a lot that blooms in the spring and the fall and less that blooms in the summer and almost no annual plants.”

Darling pointed out that there is a cost benefit in that permaculture gardens require lower maintenance and less water usage while providing some function.

“I’m hoping that what it does is shifts our thinking about what’s pretty and what’s beautiful,” he said. “And it’s something that’s also functional.”

The idea for the garden began during Vander Hill’s freshman year when she took a class with Professor Karryn Olson-Ramanujan on sustainability practices and principles.

“As a freshman I realized that this garden just really wasn’t working very well and I was really interested in gardening in general and I brought it up with [Olson-Ramanujan] and she suggested looking into permaculture and having a permaculture design for the space,” recounted Vander Hill.

Vander Hill drafted a design for the garden and students that had taken a permaculture certification course continued to make an in-depth plan for the space with Olson-Ramanujan.

“By the time last spring rolled around we had a lot of students who were really interested in it and we put together a research team, which I was part of,” said Vander Hill. “We put in the infrastructure and amended the soil, and this summer we started planting.”

Continuing the garden into the future, as well as creating future permaculture gardens in other areas on campus depends on the continued interest of students.

“One of the biggest challenges for us, in a lot of ways I guess it’s kind of a perpetual challenge, is just finding interested students,” said Vander Hill. “Last spring, one of our biggest challenges was getting people to volunteer because we needed a lot hands on help with moving things, adding compost to soil and everything.

“I see that will probably be a challenge throughout the process, but it’s definitely a surmountable one because there’re always students who are very passionate about their food and also just the way the campus looks,” she added. “And this is a great way for students to get involved.”

Since most of the planting has occurred over the summer, Vander Hill said she is excited to see what students think when they return to campus in the coming weeks.

“Just over the summer what I’ve noticed is that the biggest impact it’s had is just visually — people walk by it and are really impressed by it and how different it looks from before,” she said. “But one of my favorite ways that it’s kind of impacted the campus community so far is that I hear conversations start from people walking by who are like, ‘oh I have this plant in my garden’ and it starts a conversation. And I think on a small scale it does that, but I also think on a larger scale it’s doing that — in a less obvious way — on an institutional level.”

For more information on the garden, visit

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