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Keely McCaskie M’23, a public school administrator in Denver, Colo., is pursuing her master’s degree in community engagement online in the Winston School of Education and Social Policy.
The Merrimack Community Garden is maybe the best-kept secret on campus. The small plot of land next to the house on Rock Ridge Road is full of homegrown fruits and vegetables available – for free – to anyone who happens to stop by for a visit. The small group of organizers opened the garden for a garden party this semester to celebrate its growth and history.
The community garden project has deep roots, so to speak. As early as 2015, a cohort of environmentally engaged faculty – who have since formed the environmental steering committee – have had visions of a community garden on campus. In 2018, they pulled together to make that dream a reality with the help of students, faculty and staff.
Now organized by Professor and Department Chair of Communications and Media Lisa Perks – who teaches crossover literature and environmental studies courses – the garden has lasted its first full seasonal rotation and continues to be a source of unique peace and experiential learning.
“The idea was kicking around for a long time before we actually got a shovel in the ground,” Perks said. “Jon Lyon actually played a huge part in the beginning as a biologist before moving over to the Provost Office. He helped us scout out potential sites and build our first raised beds. He built nine of them by himself and filled them all, which was a huge jumpstart.”
After settling on the Rock Ridge Road location and building the initial infrastructure, students in Perks’ garden memoirs course took to the project in spring 2019. During the semester, students wrote a proposal for the garden, came up with garden plans and did research on what kinds of fruits, vegetables and plants they could feasibly grow in the Massachusetts climate.
“With the students’ proposal, we got funding through the Provost Office and the McLaughlin Martin grant,” Perks said. “Once we got the funding, we picked out apple trees and blueberry bushes, ordered seeds and things online and built more raised beds. That was such a great year because the students really felt like oh, we’re actually doing stuff. They had so many cool questions just thinking about where our food comes from and how it grows and all the stuff you find in the soil. It was a really great, hands-on experience.”
During the pandemic, managing the garden was a bit more complicated and relied on a lot of involvement from Perks and other volunteers to keep it up and running. Felipe Schwarz, who oversees facilities and management at Merrimack, played a key role in garden maintenance, and Perks spent many weekends and afternoons checking in on plants and organizing watering schedules with volunteers.
Now that the Merrimack community can safely return to campus, Perks has high hopes for the future of this space.
“I’m excited for the site to be visited more. We grow some really wonderful produce and the space has great potential to be a site where students can go to learn about plants and ecosystems and where our food comes from,” Perks said. “It’s also just a peaceful spot, especially when you’re living in a dorm room and alone time is a little hard to come by. My hope is that it’s not only educational but also a place that students can turn to in the future.”
To date, the garden has churned out potatoes, blueberries, honey crisp apples, tomatoes, cucumbers, rhubarb, garlic, asparagus, strawberries and a variety of flowers and other plants, to name only a few from the harvest. Perks keeps a watchful eye on the plot and stays in touch with students and student groups who are interested in getting involved.
Reach out to Lisa Perks at email@example.com to get involved with the Merrimack Community Garden
Follow along with updates on the Merrimack Community Garden Instagram!