Tending a Community Garden, Without the Community

For Erik Budsberg, developing sustainable food sources on the Cheney campus is a labor of love. Since arriving at Eastern Washington University as sustainability coordinator in 2016, he’s been committed to building up the EWU Community Garden, which is located behind the Red Barn on the southwest corner of campus.

“The goal has always been to grow food to give to the EWU food pantry,” says Budsberg. And for the past several years he’s been doing just that, while also working to improve the garden space and educate Eastern students and employees about the benefits of growing their own food.

Last spring and summer, Budsberg put the finishing touches on a garden redesign to help manage weeds. He also installed new raised garden beds. By fall, he had enough students interested in helping to start the Easy Come, Easy Grow Gardening Club.

“I met Erik during a produce giveaway—I was so surprised we even had a garden center,” remembers Angela Denton, a junior majoring in biology with the pre-medical/pre-dental option. “Erik and I started the club to get more students involved. The club started meeting in the fall and we began making plans for the spring.”

“We were ready to do a lot more in the garden than in the past,” adds Budsberg. “It was really exciting.”

With funds provided by EWU Dining Services, the club took a field trip to purchase seeds. They then created a layout design for the vegetable garden. It seemed everything was perfectly prepared for spring.

“We were having get-togethers to make our plans for the garden, coming up with fundraising ideas and making plans for the harvest,” says Denton. But that was before COVID-19 started to spread. By late March the pandemic had forced the university to move classes online and cancel all in-person events, which included student club activities.

“It’s frustrating that we can’t do what we were planning but everyone understands why,” says Budsberg.

The coronavirus-induced restrictions on campus left Budsberg, once again, managing the garden space alone. He planted seeds in the greenhouse earlier this spring, and is currently working to transplant the starts into the garden. At the same time, he’s engaged in a one-man battle against weeds—the garden is organic—while also staying on top of his additional responsibilities in EWU’s sustainability office and juggling childcare responsibilities at home.

But the added challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic only strengthened Budsberg’s drive to grow healthy food for the campus community. Rather than waiting until the fall harvest to help stock fresh produce in the EWU Central Food Pantry, Budsberg is doing something new this year: giving away vegetable starts. In late May and early June he had a table set up at the Tuesday open hours of the Central Food Pantry in Tawanka Hall with tomato, zucchini, squash and pepper plants for students who want to grow their own produce. He also helped educate students on how start a home garden.

Also, as part of his education push, Budsberg is hosting gardening webinars for the campus community. Anyone is invited to join via Zoom to hear updates on the community garden, ideas for their own garden, or learn easy growing tips for apartment living.

Seeds start in the greenhouse
Vegetable plant giveaway
Plants growing in the garden

Budsberg and Denton plan to keep the gardening club going as well. Currently, Budsberg hosts a bi-weekly club meeting via Zoom, showing the members around the garden. He’s hoping, as the state moves through its phases of reopening, that he can establish a safe protocol for student interns and volunteers to return to the garden this summer.

Whether he does it alone or with help, Budsberg is confident the harvest from the EWU Community Garden will continue to benefit the EWU Central Food Pantry. He and the Easy Come, Easy Grow Gardening Club, he says, are on a mission to help curb food insecurity on campus.

“I think it’s extremely important to know how to grow your own food,” says Denton. “Part of our plan is to help students—we want them to see that it’s really not as intimidating as people think.”

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