A Beacon of Sustainability: The Stewardship Garden

Tucked away in a sheltered corner of campus, far from the busy happenings of the lower and upper quads or the bright lights of O’Shaughnessy Stadium, you’ll find a unicorn of sorts – a scientific unicorn, bursting with sun-ripened vegetables, curious dogs on their morning walk, and rusty-patched bumblebees looking for their next meal. Joining the ever-evolving scene on a hot and humid Minnesota morning, a handful of student researchers meticulously make their way through the 32 raised beds of the St. Thomas Stewardship Garden.

While still unknown to many on campus, the Stewardship Garden is quickly establishing itself as a player on the world stage. A 2021 AASHE Sustainability Award finalist, there's more here than meets the eye.

On the surface, the space looks like an incredibly well-cared-for community garden – and that it certainly is. This year’s crop includes green bell peppers, green beans, collard greens and carrots – all eventually destined for Campus Dining Services.

Student researcher and environmental science major Emilio Urbina has spent much of his summer tending to the neat rows of greenery.

“They're tasting pretty good, and they're looking pretty good,” Urbina said.

The Stewardship Garden features 32 raised beds tucked behind the Brady Educational Center. A $500,000 National Science Foundation grant is helping amplify the garden's unique work around the globe. (Abraham Swee/University of St. Thomas)

Like any good gardener, Urbina has dedicated many a morning to weeding and watering, but his tasks hardly end there. Beyond all the composting and harvesting he does, Urbina is also part of a team that makes this community garden so much more, earning the attention of communities around the globe.

“It's a part of something bigger,” Urbina said. “And it feels good to know that … we're working towards something bigger and we're able to contribute.”

A garden's dual purpose

Since its inception in 2010, the Stewardship Garden has served a dual purpose – one part community garden, one part biology research and teaching center. When fused together, its parallel functions create a rare space in the higher education landscape.

“There are a lot of campus gardens out there, but very few of them are used for research and teaching in the sciences,” said Adam Kay, University of St. Thomas biology professor and Stewardship Garden founder. “It's really a model for urban agriculture on college campuses.”

Kay helped dig the very first plots more than a decade ago.

“The vision, from the beginning, was to do something that benefited students on campus but also had this way of producing things that could be a contribution to the broader community,” Kay said.

The Stewardship Garden is one part research plot and one part community garden. Researchers are currently looking into how much compost a plant really needs to get specific nutrients. (Abraham Swee/University of St. Thomas)

In its 12 short years, the garden’s mission has quickly made it a darling of science departments across the country. In naming the project a 2021 finalist for the Campus Sustainability Achievement Award, the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) highlighted St. Thomas’ work in connecting undergraduate students with real-life community issues, such as food insecurity, nutrition, and sustainable agriculture. Kay wrote the case study that resulted in St. Thomas being recognized as an award finalist.

“The students benefit so much by having their instruction being embedded into the pressing issues of the day,” Kay said. “It’s even better if they can be directly connected to challenges in their own community.”

Student-driven research

Veggies from this year’s crop are making their way straight into campus meals. Previous years have seen the produce shared with community food banks. But before any carrots are harvested or bell peppers picked, there’s plenty of research and learning to be had.

This year’s students are part of a multiyear study looking at the impact of compost in urban gardening. Compost is full of nitrogen and phosphorus – nutrients absolutely necessary to make plants grow. But too much of a good thing can lead to adverse consequences, including phosphorus pollution in our lakes and streams.

Biology professor Gaston "Chip" Small leads the team of about 10 student researchers trying to find a middle ground.

“We’re trying to target the compost applications to what the plants actually need,” Small said. “And it turns out you can do pretty well if you're intentional about it.”

Each morning students take myriad measurements, keeping tabs on the plants and compost in all 32 raised beds. And whether they realize it or not, right as they take a fresh soil moisture reading, they’re becoming real-life scientists.

“It's a different kind of experience to actually be out here and be part of it,” Small said. “Our students are getting opportunities that typically only graduate students would get at bigger research universities.”

Sharing the fruits of their labors

A recent $500,000 National Science Foundation grant is helping amplify their work around the globe. Training Undergraduate Biologists through Urban Agriculture (TUBA) aims to engage students in socially connected science through urban agriculture. The grant will provide the opportunity to use resources such as the Stewardship Garden to develop experiences at St. Thomas and partner institutions.

The Stewardship Garden was recently named a 2021 finalist for the Campus Sustainability Achievement Award from the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education. (Abraham Swee/University of St. Thomas)

“We're developing curriculum around these gardens, so that when people install gardens in other universities, they're going to have courses and class modules that they can implement right away,” Kay said.

St. Thomas is already working with partners in cities like New Orleans and Cape Town, South Africa.

“It's the same model everywhere,” Kay said. “If we get students engaged with the subject matter and working with community members … the easier it is to have projects that that can actually grow, expand and have a big impact.”

For student researcher Emilio Urbina, he’s grateful for a summer full of veggies and a growing connection to his community.

“It's been a great learning experience,” Urbina said. “And I'm thankful it's been fun.”