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Campus gardeners: turning over a green leaf

Each year, St. Kates hires several students to help its grounds crew care for its gardens and flowerbeds.
Each year, St. Kates hires several students to help its grounds crew care for its gardens and flowerbeds.
Rebecca Zenefski 10

St. Catherine University’s gardening division has been actively turning over a new leaf and going green in numerous ways over the past three years.

Since most of the plants are grown from seed, certain insects and diseases that are associated with mass production have been eliminated. If a problem occurs, pesticides are the last resort used on the campus flowerbeds. Instead, the St. Kate’s gardeners let Mother Nature run her course through rain and wind power — or let beneficial insects, such as ladybugs and ants, eat the harmful ones.

And if this approach is still ineffective, the grounds crew uses a safe, organic insecticidal soap made from plant oils and animal fats, which has a 70 percent kill rate.

The University gardeners are also targeting water use. Summer 2010's water consumption was only half the amount of what it was last summer! Many factors contributed to this: rain was abundant, compost was incorporated with the soil to greatly improve water retention, and the gardeners used smarter and more efficient watering practices, such as watering by hand instead of using a sprinkler and mulching more landscape beds.

Mulching of the beds, in fact, has become another important green measure at St. Kate's — not only because it enhances water retention but because it encourages the growth of worms and other beneficial organisms.

When these organisms are around, the soil structure and availability of nutrients increases and water is retained. More nutrients and water mean that less potentially harmful fertilizers would be used. But the gardeners at St. Catherine University are not just leaving it up to the worms. Recycling debris has become the ticket.

All campus plants, weeds, tree limbs, shrub cuttings and fall leaves are recycled, and the debris is sent to a local compost site. Pots and planting trays are reused as many times as possible, and plastic pots that become damaged are recycled into new planting containers.

Recycling is key but so is innovation
Earlier this year, St. Kate’s gardeners implemented a system to make compost tea to fertilize certain flowerbeds. (Compost tea, a well-known practice in home gardening, involves a mixture of compost, water, molasses and oxygen.) They're still establishing the right formula — more testing, which includes how much to actually put down on the flowers, will be done this winter. But the goal is for this new compost formula to be successful (and used more widely on the campus) in 2011.

Last but not least, in the gardening scheme of turning over a green leaf, was the installation of a non-bottle water cooler in the Mendel Hall greenhouse last spring.

Working in the heat all day, the gardeners must drink a lot of water and stay hydrated. With the new cooler, bottled water delivery to campus has been reduced. The cooler is directly linked to the city’s water system and is filtered the same way as bottled water.

The taste is the same, and the best part is the scale down in the gardening carbon footprint. The reduction of bottled water usage, cost and emissions from delivery trucks is well worth it and helps the environment in more ways than one.

To learn more about St. Kate's greenhouse, read "Greenhouse gardening makes the campus bloom."

Oct. 25, 2010 by Pauline Oo

See also: Students