FIU’s organic garden earns recognition from USDA

Miami Herald

“A garden that started out as a project of a few FIU environmental studies majors and their teachers has gained recognition from federal agriculture officials.

One of the secrets to their success: worm poo.

The garden, near the baseball field at Florida International University’s main campus, 11200 SW Eighth Street, was recognized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a “People’s Garden” earlier this month.

FIU professors Mahadev Bhat and Krish Jayachandran from the university’s Environmental Studies Department founded both the fully organic garden and FIU’s agro-ecology program in 2005. They have incorporated the garden into their teaching.

“These students are getting hands-on training,” Bhat said. “There is learning taking place here; this is a really valuable program.”

Students from the agro-ecology department and the garden club team up once a week to tend the garden as they work to conserve energy and reduce waste.

Andrew Jungman, a senior majoring in environmental studies, said the garden uses little or no synthetic soil or pesticides.

“We always look for organic solutions,” Jungman said. “We squeeze caterpillars’ guts onto plants to deter insects, and we feed compost like orange peels to worms to use their poop or castings to create a very rich soil.”

The FIU gardeners are also cautious of how energy is used, Jungman explained. “We use a drip irrigation system that allows water to drip slowly to the roots of plants, conserving water and fertilizer,” he said.

The garden consists of mostly companion plants, meaning those that help each other grow, according to David Trujillo, a junior majoring in environmental and religious studies.

Celia Izaguirre, a junior who specializes in growing medicinal plants, started the garden club in 2006. She says at first the garden was strictly a place where environmental studies majors came to create their theses.

“I created the idea of opening the garden to everyone,” she said. “Now even teachers and students from other schools come here.”

Patrons can learn about more than just peppers and plants at the garden, Trujillo said. The green haven has also become a place to meditate.

Trujillo set up a sandbox in the northeast corner of the garden, used as a meditation site, surrounded by edible plants like basil and lemon balm.

The Colombia native says the site is there for anyone to come relax and connect with the earth. “My main focus is bringing nature back to the community,” Trujillo said. “ A lot of people lose that intimate connection with plants.”

Every Wednesday, the students set up the Organic Farmer’s Market, a booth where fresh produce including cilantro, purple Peruvian peppers, carrots and cherry tomatoes are sold.

“Once you grow your own food, you’re connecting with what you’re eating,” Jungman said. “When you start growing it yourself, you become enlightened.”

The recognition stems from The People’s Garden Initiative, a USDA program that challenges department employees and community members to establish environmentally friendly community gardens worldwide.”

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