Inside USD

Garden Helps Grow Community at USD

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

When Courtney Walters wants to talk about building community, all she has to do on the University of San Diego campus is spend time at five plots of land behind the Mission Crossroads office.

It’s here where she can see the progress of broccoli, lemon grass, peas, kale, parsley, mint, cilantro, tomatoes, potatoes, carrots, peppers, tree roots that will ultimately produce apples and figs, and so much more. It’s here where the double USD alumna, who runs Missions Cafe, has found a perfect setting to bring students, staff, faculty, alumni and community members from Linda Vista and greater San Diego together. It’s here where education and the edible garden at USD resides and thrives.

It began with a simple inquiry. She wanted to have a small box to grow herbs that could be used as ingredients in food served at Missions Cafe. That’s when Barbara Zackowski, manager of USD’s fitness programs, told her about a committee on campus interested in reviving the garden space. Inspired, Walters joined the effort and now facilitates a gardening course that gives students an educational base, responsibility and hands-on experience of growing food.

“We started the class last semester and we did it to keep it as a community thing, to raise awareness and even if there were people who couldn’t take the class but were interested in gardening, they could also be part of it,” Walters said.

Having a for-credit class has attracted students who would be genuinely interested in the project, along with some who are committed to sustainable living and an incentive for support from USD’s Office of Sustainability, Outdoor Adventures, Dining Services, Residential Life and Associated Students. Education-wise, students learn gardening skills, discuss topics such as permaculture and composting and they’ve listened to a variety of on- and off-campus experts.

“There is a strong cry for knowing where your food comes from,” she said. “There are students interested in integrating this into their daily lives and for the future. I know we all can’t grow everything in our backyards that we’re going to eat, but even if we grow one thing and we’re witness to part of that growth, it’s amazing to see something come to life, to understand it and become connected to it.”

Walters is living proof of that. In 2010, she spent six months in a small village community within a Peruvian jungle. Living among natives, she said, were some from Lima who wanted to ensure that the village was developed sustainably.

“I helped build some of the homes, plant trees and small-scale gardens,” she recalled. “This time helped me appreciate my own home and community. When I returned, I had a deeper commitment to the U.S. and San Diego as my home of origin. I was a first-generation (2000) college graduate, so USD was a natural piece of my native home community.”

Walters worked at USD and entered the School of Leadership and Education Sciences’ Masters of Education TESOL program, from which she graduated in 2013.

“During my graduate studies, I became aware of my multiple identities on campus — a first-generation college graduate exposed to academic life and levels of wealth and experience; a food service worker for auxiliary services; and as a graduate student. I largely focused my studies and action research on my personal reconciliation of these identities. This gave me an interesting perspective from which to see the university because of the separation of these groups to which I belonged. I saw each group operating on a slightly different plane, with not much overlap or integration between service industry workers, graduate students and undergrads.”

The community garden, to Walters, is a way to bridge this gap.

“The amazing possibility I see in the garden is the opportunity to marry these three identities into a complete and whole me. I greatly emphasize the community in community garden,” she said. “It’s a collaboration of many departments on campus, students, staff, faculty, alumni and community members. The garden allows me to share something with all of these people and we’ve all learned much in the process. It has expanded my personal community profoundly in a short time. I imagine the garden project can provide an excellent opportunity to expand the communities of students, staff and faculty on campus and bridge the gap between the many micro-communities on campus.”

The garden has the look and feel of a community that’s connected to nature with contribution from all levels. Daycare students in USD’s Manchester Family Child Development Center designed signs for each crop. Lemon grass and Chinese chives were donated from the home garden of a Student Life Pavilion Dining chef. A La Paloma chef propagated a piece of a ginger tree for planting in the garden. Outdoor Adventures staff members have donated items for planting. A Residential Life administrator has provided assistance and support as everything develops. The Office of Sustainability staff is deeply involved and supportive. A student-athlete whose commitment to the garden and the building of a compost bin near the garden has been an inspiration to other students. Guests, including alumni, staff and local business people have spoken to Walters’ class about permaculture, farming, landscaping and sustainability.

The USD Edible Garden Community Facebook page has captured it all to expand awareness. Walters said the Community Garden class, currently in its second semester, is continuing in the fall.

“We will begin to focus heavily on the permaculture idea,” she said. “The single permaculture plot is an excellent start to developing a holistic vision of gardening, farming and community living. There are plans for more planting, propagation, composting, vermiculture and rainwater collection. A student-led community garden club, which I will advise, is also in the works.”

The garden continues to grow, continues to inspire those who come in contact with it and, soon, with continuing care from a diverse campus population, it will deliver nourishment. It’s a recipe for building a strong community.

— Ryan T. Blystone

To get involved with the garden, leave a message on the Facebook page or email

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