The University of Memphis is cultivating more than students. A few yards away from the Elma Neal Roane Fieldhouse, large stalks of corn, sunflowers, jalapeños, watermelons, and other produce grow throughout the year in the school's Urban Oasis garden.
The garden was introduced during the 2008-2009 school year when the U of M Tigers Initiative for Gardens and Urban Settings (TIGUrS) was launched. The initiative came about after university president Shirley Raines asked faculty, staff, and students to brainstorm ideas that could help make the campus more sustainable.
Karyl Buddington, director of animal care facilities at the university, came up with the idea to create a garden on campus to teach students and neighboring residents how to grow their own food in an urban setting.
"We have about 23,000 students here, and a lot of them don't know where their food comes from," Buddington said. "We want to teach our students to be self-sufficient. We want them to know where their food comes from, and we want them to know that there's a healthy choice available for them."
Since the introduction of the Urban Oasis garden, there's been four smaller satellite gardens placed around campus that grow similar produce. Altogether, the gardens total 6,300 square feet.
Anyone, not just students, can pick produce from the gardens free of charge. But Buddington admits that people do commonly pick produce before it's fully mature.
Every year around March, seeds are planted in pots in a greenhouse on the roof of the U of M's Life Sciences building. The plants are transplanted to raised beds throughout the gardens in April.
Buddington said the campus gardens are maintained year-round. Produce grown during the summer includes tomatoes, greens, watermelons, sunflowers, herbs, and corn. Broccoli, cauliflower, sweet potatoes, pumpkins, and radishes are grown in winter. To cater to the diverse population on the U of M campus, exotic produce, such as the Asian bitter gourd, are grown in the gardens as well.
"The benefits of the garden initiative are almost innumerable," said Art Johnson, the garden coordinator. "Every person who comes in here and learns some of the techniques we use can take them into the community and share them for generations untold."
Buddington said it costs around $30,000 annually to maintain the gardens. A portion of this money goes toward students who are hired year-round to maintain the gardens' upkeep.
U of M student Jack Simon is one of five students who maintains the garden. He had no gardening experience prior to getting involved.
"It's not only a job where you're paid to work. You get to learn, and that's been the most beneficial aspect to me," Simon said. "I've learned how different plants come from different families and how you rotate crops for the best yield. I've also learned a lot about soil and composting. The garden uses compost to create new fertile soil for its raised beds."
The U of M's community garden project was one of 11 winners across the state recently selected to receive the 2012 Governor's Environmental Stewardship Award.