On a typical early June Tuesday in the WSU Teaching Garden, one would usually be welcomed into the space by the sounds of children playing on the nearby Chandler Magnet Elementary School playground, trowels thumping into soil, and volunteers chatting amongst themselves—all with the persistent hum of cars whizzing up and down Chandler Street in the background.
These days, it’s pretty quiet. What normally would have been a bustling scene staffed by teams of volunteers readying the garden for summer programming is now a much smaller, quieter operation. Like every other area of Worcester State, the WSU Teaching Garden, run by the Urban Action Institute, is operating under a new sense of normal since COVID-19 forced most campus operations from in-person to remote. But gardening can’t be done virtually, so the staff at the Urban Action Institute have been working on creative ways to keep the garden operational and relevant.
“We usually work with Chandler Magnet students and have different camp groups in the garden like Girls, Inc. However, these events have been cancelled due to the virus,” says Joanne Jaber-Gauvin, assistant director of the Urban Action Institute.
Faced with this unique problem, Jaber-Gauvin and her team have shifted their strategy from bringing people into the garden, to bringing the garden to the people—teaming up with Thea’s Pantry to work on a plan to distribute fresh produce to Worcester State students living nearby. But, like many, Jaber-Gauvin is hopeful that the fall will bring a return to campus for Worcester State and Worcester Public Schools students alike.
“When the school year starts up again, we are hoping that Chandler Magnet students and our WSU students will be enjoying the produce and the garden,” she says. “This is a teaching garden and we will be using all that is grown here to teach the CMS students and WSU students about sustainable living and where their food comes from—what it looks like before it is packaged and available for purchase in the supermarket.”
While there isn’t a whole lot of teaching going on in the garden right now, the Urban Action Institute and Teaching Garden volunteers have been hard at work obtaining seedlings, planting and maintaining the garden, and nurturing the long-standing community partnerships that keep the Teaching Garden alive and operational.
“We work closely with the Regional Environmental Council in Worcester; they provide support for our garden as well as many other school gardens and community gardens in the City of Worcester. We ordered seedlings from them. We also bought some from Bells Garden Center. Yellick’s Farm in Northborough donated many seedlings as well.”
Currently growing in this lush, urban space are tomatoes, peppers, squash, cucumber, lettuce and other greens, berries, peaches, cherries, and lots of perennial herbs and flowers.
The teaching garden also continues to be an integral part of the Urban Studies practica. The garden practicum allows Worcester State students to work in the garden with students from Chandler Magnet Elementary School and covers experiential learning topics including planting and growing, eating nutritious food, and living sustainably.
In addition to being an important and unique part of the Worcester State University experience, Jaber-Gauvin raises an important point that reminds one that, while life (and school) must go on, initiatives like the Teaching Garden provide more than academic experience and tangible products.
“It has been nice to go to the garden and work, plant, and be outside with my co-workers. It feels normal during a time of social distancing and virtual meetings,” she says.
“However,” Jaber-Gauvin adds, “it is hot to garden with a mask on.”
The WSU Teaching Garden is located right across the street from the Ghosh Science and Technology Center at 531 Chandler Street.
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