Garden Club springs to life at Centre College

Centre students Annemieke Buis ’21 (Christiana, Tennessee) and Cat Uritis ’19 are the driving force behind a community-wide effort to breathe new life into the Centre College Garden Club, providing a forum for gardening, companionship and sustainability initiatives on campus.

The Centre garden has an ebb-and-flow history, in part because classes are not in session in the summer, the prime planting and maintenance season. When Buis, a member of the Centre Environmental Association (CEA), learned in 2017 of the existence of a garden behind Emeritus House on Maple Avenue, she was determined to nurse it back to health.

“I immediately contacted some of my friends, including Cat, the club’s co-founder, to see if anyone wanted to share a plot. At that time, Margaux Crider ’18 was in charge of the space, which was overrun with weeds and barely resembled a garden, save for a few plots she and others were maintaining.”

“Despite some initial difficulties, Cat and I were thrilled to have a space to learn to grow food and flowers,” Buis says. “Both sides of my family are involved in agriculture—my dad is from the Netherlands and is involved in the bulb business, and my mom is from a huge farm in Tennessee—so I have had experience working in our garden at home, but never on my own. Similarly, Cat had only ever done a small amount of gardening with her mother, so we were very excited to have this opportunity.”

Annually, the club orders tulip, daffodil, allium, iris, and garlic bulbs from Buis’ father’s Dutch company.

“In the spring, we have a cut flower sale with our beautiful blooms and massive garlic plants,” Buis says. “To celebrate our first harvest in 2017, we held the inaugural Ultra Violet Verses, a poetry reading and festival of art and gardening. The event was a huge success, with attendees lingering long after the official event ended to play music and sing in the moonlit garden. We used that opportunity to paint our raised beds, while enjoying fresh food and student art.”

Students in the Garden Club are determined to make this a true community endeavor. A local farmer, Bob Ziesmer, has given the group a tremendous amount of materials and support, and encouraged them to expand their crops to include international vegetables.

“[Bob] sponsored a Syrian refugee family, inspiring him to grow produce native to their country that cannot be easily obtained in this area,” Buis explains. “The impact of providing people with their own ethnic cuisine cannot be underestimated. Centre’s international students have also expressed a desire to have access to foods from their home countries, so as a club, we decided to grow our own.

“We asked members of the International Student Organization to recommend things that they would like,” Buis continues. “We are very excited to grow a diverse array of plants, while also supporting and learning about cultures around the world.”

The club has focused a great deal on the educational aspects of gardening, and they look forward to bringing more learning opportunities to students, faculty and staff both in and out of the classroom.

Recently, we visited the garden of Michael Dixon, assistant professor of Japanese,” Buis says. “He shared his sustainable Asian gardening techniques and also taught us about seed saving and hybridizing, which we have been doing as a club.

We’re also trying to integrate the garden into our academic programs, as the garden is a wonderful learning environment, and inclusion in academic programs can help ensure its longevity,” she adds.

Jean Faye, assistant professor of environmental studies, brought his agroforestry class to do soil sampling in the fall. In addition, Jeffrey Shenton, visiting assistant professor of anthropology, will have his new class, Cognition, Culture and Cultivation, working in the garden this spring.

With Ziesmer’s help, the club has started gardens at Danville’s Tolliver Elementary School, Morning Point Alzheimer’s Memory Care and Grace Café, a nonprofit, pay-what-you-can community restaurant. They also have worked with the Boyle County High School agriculture program and have assisted elderly members of the community with their personal gardens.

Not every venture has been a success, but lessons have been learned along the way.

“Cat and I had our garden plots growing in the summer of 2018, but there wasn’t anyone around to really take care of them,” Buis remembers. “So when we visited to weed and harvest some things, we were devastated to see that the weeds had totally smothered a lot of our plants.

“To ensure that this wouldn’t happen again, this past summer we were able to expand the garden internship already in existence through the Bonner Scholars program, a service-oriented scholarship for Centre students. Hannah DiDomenico ’22 (Danville) was our intern, and her supervisor was the Garden Club’s treasurer, Isa Harrison ’21 (Elsmere, Kentucky), who was on campus doing research.

“Isa and Hannah kept the garden immaculate and weed free, giving us a healthy harvest and allowing us to donate a great deal of food,” Buis says.

Club members are also grateful for a hydroponics system donated by Bhavani Gudlavalleti ’19 and her family. They hope to increase efficiencies and in the process have a major learning experience.

This past spring, the club hosted Centre’s after school program, where the children participated in a scavenger hunt to identify plants in the garden, ran a spoon and egg race, and learned about composting. In addition, they have had several sessions of yoga in the garden, as well as the second annual Ultra Violet Verses event, featuring a poetry reading and homemade food. In October, their Fall Fusion Fest featured two live bands, Kentucky Ensemble and CHUD, as well as Lyric Hyde ’23 (Campbellsville, Kentucky) soloing on flute. They served coffee from an area vendor, as well as locally grown, autumn-themed food and pumpkins to carve from a local farm.

The club has already seen its share of success, even though the 2019 academic year marks its first fully funded year.

“We plan to use some of our funding for more seating in the garden to transform it into more of a social gathering place where people can go to get away from everything, and be surrounded by a little patch of cultivated nature,” Buis says. “The garden is a very peaceful section of campus, and our events are fun and community enriching.

“We have many communal spaces in the garden where anyone can contribute, but we also divide individual plots for people to plant whatever they want,” Buis continues. “Since we’ve been a club, these have all been used by student club members, but we would like to engage more faculty, staff and community members in the garden in the future.”

Above: The Centre College Garden Club and friends gather in the community garden for Fall Fusion Fest.

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by Cindy Long