Students staring down from the windows of Callahan and McNary residence halls on campus previously gazed on a large expanse of lawn that stretched to the parking lot. But now, a broad swath of land between the two buildings has been transformed into a sprawling cottage garden that provides food, shade and color in this corner of campus.
The Food Forest is a mix of fruit, vegetables and flowers lovingly maintained by landscape technicians Brian Kreft and Sylvan Pritchett, as well as a number of other OSU students and staff. It was created by University Housing and Dining Services in partnership with the departments of horticulture and crop and soil science to offer educational and volunteer opportunities for students and to provide organic produce for some of UHDS’ restaurant and retail food operations.
Kreft and Pritchett, who are both accredited by organic certifier Oregon Tilth, are dedicated to shifting UHDS landscaping away from traditional and often pesticide-oriented practices toward a more educational, natural, chemical-free approach that embraces color, texture, and yes, sometimes weeds.
“We’re designing a landscape that distracts the eyes from any weeds,” Kreft explained, rather than aggressively removing them. “This shifts us away from how we used to look at landscapes. For instance, that watermelon behind us is a great groundcover. It suppresses weeds but allows the fruit trees to grow.”
While OSU has several other organic gardens on the edge of campus and off site, the Food Forest is the first such space in central campus, and was intentionally placed so that students would constantly be passing by, and hopefully, getting interested in what was growing along their path.
“When I’ve been working on the garden, I’ve had students walk by and say ‘How can I help?’” Pritchett said. “It’s never been like that on any other projects. No one stops and says ‘Can I help you mow that lawn?’ We should listen to that interest.”
Jaime Herrera, Executive Chef for UHDS, said food service on campus has been greatly expanding their focus on local, organic and seasonal food offerings, and working with Kreft and Pritchett has grown that even further with the chance to go into the garden and actually pick what they’re serving.
“From the cook’s perspective, the garden is an inspiring space where you can take a quick break from the kitchen” Herrera said. “It sparks your imagination and revives you. It allows you to expand your offerings by seeing what’s available.”
In Callahan, what’s available includes peppers, eggplant, figs and currants, pineapple sage, pumpkins, apples, sea berries and many many other plants, some common, some new.
A new restaurant called “Five Four One,” is currently under construction in McNary Dining Center, and will depend partially on the Callahan Food Forest and a new garden about to be created on the east side of McNary, for its produce. Under the direction of Chef Dale Lawson, the restaurant, which opens in September, will offer mostly locally sourced foods based on what’s available during the year, and will be inspired in part by what they find in the garden.
“One of the most exciting parts about Five Four One is the educational component,” Lawson said. “Students will be able to broaden their horizons and try new things. Beets might not be number one on their list of choices but we can provide them in an interesting way that makes them want to try it.”
The dining experience will be interactive, with students being able to talk with food preparers about their meals and learn more about where their food is coming from and how it’s prepared. Those waiting to order can watch videos highlighting some of the gardens and farms where their food is coming from.
“There’s going to be a lot of back and forth,” Lawson said, offering students and staff a chance to really feel connected with their food.
Making that connection is also what the residence hall gardens is all about. For Kreft and Pritchett, it’s allowing students the chance to walk out the door of their residence halls and step into a beautiful space where they can eat fresh fruit, maybe see butterflies and bees, and perhaps interact more with their landscape than they would crossing a patch of lawn.
Ideally, they said, there would be an organic garden next to each residence hall on campus. While it isn’t practical for the campus to produce all of its food needs, having even a small portion grown right on the doorstep creates endless educational opportunities, and enhances campus beauty in new ways.
“The vision is that everyone has access to this space,” Pritchett said. “The Food Forest is open to everyone and that’s the intention. We want people to be excited about the landscape.”
~ Theresa Hogue