This summer, vegetables, flowers and herbs will take the place of some of the cars and trucks atop MIT's West Garage as part of MIT's first-ever community garden.
The pilot program in urban sustainable agriculture is the result of a months-long effort spearheaded by MIT Police Sgt. Cheryl Vossmer and Libraries Administrative Assistant and Public Service Support Associate Ryan Gray. Working with administrators and staff across the Institute, the two were able to secure seven little-used parking spaces and a strip of grass at West Garage to house the garden, which will comprise several dozen plots. The remainder of the spots on the garage's roof will still be open for parking this summer.
"It's a wonderful opportunity to reduce our carbon footprints and do great outreach," Vossmer says, noting that the garden fits in with a number of different Institute objectives regarding sustainability and green living.
The project also aims to foster community and give back to those in need: At least 2 percent of all harvested produce will be given to Food for Free, a local charity that finds and distributes fresh food to pantries, meal programs and shelters. Food for Free already collects fresh fruit and vegetables from a local farm that delivers to campus in the summer, an initiative that Gray helped launch last year.
Going green, giving back
Each plot will consist of one EarthBox, a low-cost, compact and water-efficient growing container that's about the size of a large suitcase. The EarthBoxes will be available for purchase, at a discount and complete with soil and fertilizer, through MIT's Endicott House. While there is no fee for a plot, gardeners must supply the EarthBox, soil and plants.
There will be approximately four plots per parking space, and several more on the grass next to the garage. Obtaining a plot requires an entry into an online lottery that begins today. The lottery can be accessed at web.mit.edu/surveys/garden.
In the program's first year, plots will only be made available to faculty and staff -- but Gray notes that opening up the program to students is an "absolute possibility" in subsequent years. Vossmer notes the program would be well suited to graduate students, who are around campus during the summer months.
Only one plot will be awarded per faculty or staff member, and those chosen will get to have a plot for three years.
Gardeners may grow whatever they wish in their individual gardens, though the EarthBox web site (www.earthbox.com) recommends certain fruits and vegetables over others. The Endicott House will be selling plants for use in the garden during its annual sale on May 20 and 21. Gardeners are encouraged to buy from the Endicott House, for sustainability reasons, but may provide their own plants.
And for those who might not consider themselves green thumbs, don't worry, Vossmer says. "We will have some workshops for people that have never gardened before."
The growing season will last from Memorial Day, May 25, through Labor Day, Sept. 7, at which point all the boxes will have to be removed from the garage by their plotholders. And gardeners may want to hope for rain this summer -- there is currently no water supply on hand at West Garage, so gardeners will have to carry water up to their plots. The EarthBoxes, however, can regulate the water in the soil, making it almost impossible to over-water.
Gray calls the community garden perfect for "building community when it is most necessary. Anything that gets people to think about something other than [the economy] is a good thing."
For more information on the community garden project e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the lottery web site at web.mit.edu/surveys/garden.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on April 8, 2009 (download PDF).