Walking through the Skagit Valley College campus, one might not even take a second look at the flower beds planted between the Cardinal Center and Cole Library. At first glance, the flower beds look like little more than nicely landscaped foliage.
But looks can be deceiving.
“People really love it,” said Lyn Highet, food services manager for the college. “(Sometimes) they don’t even notice what’s growing in it, but they think it’s really pretty.”
The three triangular beds are home to more than just flowers and shrubs. They’re home to thyme, basil, scallions, lettuce and even fig trees. They’re part of the college’s community garden that was installed over the summer and which currently is in use by the college’s culinary students.
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One October morning, the students head out to the garden to pick the leafy green and red lettuce to stock the salad bar at the Cardinal Cafe for the day. In the next few weeks, they might pick the leeks needed for the cafe’s famous potato leek soup.
“A lot of people don’t get to use the fresh stuff like that,” said D.J. Gallegos, a student in the culinary program. “It adds a different complexity to the dishes.”
The gardens mirror a big move in the food and restaurant industry, Highet said, of fresh, local products, and farm-to-table cuisine. At Skagit Valley College, they’re not only learning about farm-to-table, they’re learning about soil to seed to harvest to table to compost and back again, Highet said.
“What it really does is give the students an opportunity to work with the soil,” Highet said. “The soil is the most important thing. You can’t plant a seed into soil that isn’t healthy.”
The gardens were just planted this summer, and already they have 24 different types of herbs, fruits and vegetables, as well as flowers and other plants to act as pollinators.
“And we haven’t even planted the strawberries, asparagus, rhubarb, artichokes,” said Ani Gurnee, who helped design and install the garden at the college, as well as the garden at Anacortes Middle School. The plants in the garden will change according to the season, meaning the students will get the opportunity to work with a variety of seasonal bounties.
“It’s essential,” said chef-instructor Suzanne Butler. “If you’re going to be able to cook well, you’re going to have to be able to understand seasonality, for one thing.”
Butler said she was excited to see the garden come to fruition. Having a garden right at their fingertips gives students the opportunity to learn about their food in a way they couldn’t if they were just picking up their produce from the store. This way, Butler said, students can really see where their food comes from, even if that means seeing where the slugs were on the plants.
“They can see the quality,” Highet said. “They can taste the quality.”
Because the garden is so new and because of time constraints with the classes, students aren’t currently doing much tending to the garden, other than harvesting. But Highet and Gurnee hope to change that by bringing in other programs on campus, such as the greenhouse for the starter plants in the spring and agricultural students as well.
“I’m hoping it can be an interdepartmental thing,” Gurnee said.
The garden was funded mostly through grants from the Skagit Valley College Foundation, Butler said. But in order to get it designed, constructed and planted in such a short time, she said, it really became a matter of people pulling together to make it happen. About six students came in over the summer to help and campus maintenance pitched in, too.
“It became a community,” Butler said. “Eating’s about community. Gardening’s about community.”