March 19th, 2012

Planting the Seed of Sustainability: Languages and Cultures Fertilize an Organic Garden at Miami Dade College

By Anouchka Rachelson


In this fascinating case study from Miami Dade College, Anouchka provides us with a detailed and subtle look at the effects of a simple school garden on her students.  The garden’s potential to build a sense of community and place as well as a new environmental ethic is developed through vivid vignettes woven throughout the description of how Anouchka and her colleagues launched the project.  The garden project described is a powerful example of complex, interdisciplinary teaching that also takes advantage of the college’s physical campus to foster experiential learning and cultural exchange.  Whether or not readers are involved in similar projects, this story is important for its illustration of the interconnectivity and endless learning possible in any discipline from a connection to the living earth.

Planting the Seed of Sustainability:

Languages and Cultures Fertilize an Organic Garden at Miami Dade College


The “banana effect” works whenever a new group of students visits the Organic Garden for the first time. This morning, it is Marilyn, a young woman from the Dominican Republic, who heads straight to the corner where the banana trees stand clustered. She reaches up to touch the dark green bunch above her head, then turns to inquire whether this is a banana or a plantain. Soon several classmates congregate around her, and a lively discussion in Spanish and English ensues. Eventually, I settle their dispute by telling them that this is, in fact, a banana variety called Gros Michel, or Big Mike, which used to be the main variety exported to the United States until disease diminished the crop in the 1950s. This announcement delights the young woman, who promises to send me a Dominican recipe for green bananas so that I can post it on our course website.


The idea to create an organic garden on campus came after a fellow Earth Ethics Institute Council member who had been reading the novel Seedfolks  (Fleischman, 1997) with her EAP (English for Academic Purposes) class told me about her gardening experience with students. The following week, I contacted the director of the Earth Ethics Institute (EEI), a college-wide initiative that fosters Earth Literacy and sustainability in all disciplines and departments at Miami Dade College (MDC),  to seek funding and expertise to establish a garden at the Kendall Campus, where I teach. EEI provides support for the development and supplies of the garden as well as the advice and support of their local organic farmer. A colleague and I scoured our campus to identify a spot that would receive 5-6 hours of sunlight and be accessible to a large group. Next to one of the central buildings, amid a sea of concrete, we found a neglected rectangle covered with a layer of decaying mulch. Nothing, not even a weed, had grown there for years. For a few days, we observed the space at different hours before agreeing that it would provide sufficient sunshine for our crops.


After obtaining permission from the administration, who reminded us not to obstruct access to three manholes, we set out to install a drip irrigation system around the perimeter of the plot with a second smaller loop delivering water to the center. With the help of our students, we added a fresh layer of soil, erected trellising, and planted our first seedlings: tomatoes, beans, basil, eggplant, and dozens of bright yellow and orange marigolds that would protect the plants’ roots from harmful nematodes and hungry beetles.


Since then, hundreds of students have enjoyed learning about sustainable agriculture through the Organic Garden Project, which promotes an understanding of local ecology and seeks to build community at a large urban commuter college. Each term, I select one of my courses, usually an intermediate EAP speech class, to work in the garden. We start out with a discussion on where the food we buy comes from and how it is grown before we examine the differences between conventional and sustainable agriculture methods. In the fall term, the first visit to the garden does not take place until early October, when the heavy rains have subsided and the planting season in South Florida begins. In the spring term, we can head straight to the garden as the temperature is mild and ripe tomatoes beckon.


After meeting our farmer and mentor, Cliff Middleton, who runs a local organic farm and teaches sustainable agriculture at several schools in Miami, we prepare the ground and plant a variety of vegetables. Most of my EAP students have immigrated from Cuba, Colombia, Venezuela, Haiti, and Brazil, but there are also students who hail from Thailand, Bangladesh, China, and Russia. Some are familiar with the fruits and vegetables we grow; others have never seen yuca, callaloo, or malanga before. “The nature of Florida is very different from my country. This land is very wet,” a student from Cuba wrote in one of his reflection papers. Another student, also from Cuba, recognized similarities: “In my country, the people who work with the land use natural fertilizers for their crops…Families try to use their backyards, and those who live in apartments often use pots to plant in.” As they compare and contrast the geography, climates, and lifestyles of their former and current regions, the students recognize many dichotomies that exist with regard to urban and rural living, conventional and sustainable agriculture, and individualistic versus communal thinking. Their impressions find an outlet in classroom discussions, where we tackle global issues such as immigration, climate change, hunger and obesity, and the recent Occupy Wall Street movement.


With a multi-lingual, multi-cultural group of students, the dynamic conversations in the garden center on what the individual vegetables are called here and there, how they are used in dishes, and what they taste like. “I really enjoyed this experience,” one student related in her journal, “and I think it is a wonderful way for students who came from countries with different nature to learn about this culture. In the garden, students have an opportunity to touch the seeds and the soil when they plant.” Farmer Cliff always gives away some seedlings, which has inspired a number of students to start their own organic gardens, however small, at home. Over the course of the semester, we pull weeds, spread mulch, and check for unwanted intruders like snails and ants, and we document our progress by uploading photos of plants and people in the garden to a shared website. Before the semester ends, students harvest some of the fruits of their labor, whether this means digging for sweet potato tubers, plucking yellow pear and sun gold tomatoes from the vine, or snipping off young arugula leaves. Some students bring their children after school to show them what they have planted.


I began the garden at the same time I started working on my dissertation on the role of community college faculty in Education for Sustainable Development (ESD). It gave me a much-needed practical outlet to apply the theories I spent so many hours reading and writing about. Aside from the principles of Earth Literacy, the seven Key Characteristics of Education for Sustainable Development as described in the Framework for the UNDESD International Implementation Scheme (2006) also inform the pedagogy of the Organic Garden Project:


1.     Interdisciplinary and holistic:  The project combines foreign language learning with social and natural sciences and is infused into the course curriculum over the course of the entire semester, not as a one-time unit.


2.     Values-driven: In class, we examine the values associated with sustainability and the interconnection of environmental, social, and economic aspects of various issues. Students learn to agree and disagree respectfully in informal discussions, formal debates, and written assignments.


3.     Critical thinking and problem solving: The garden offers many chances to practice critical thinking and problem solving. Challenges have ranged from insect infestations and broken sprinklers to loofah vines “gone wild,” and since neither the professor nor the students are Florida natives, we are all learning how to become better gardeners in this climate. A few years ago during hurricane season, the garden was partially destroyed by strong winds. A student described it as follows:


Last week a tornado passed through Miami, creating a huge mess in my school garden. In the morning, our professor and the whole class went to the garden to help the farmer fix it and make it beautiful again… The farmer explained to us how to do all the work required without destroying the plants that were still alive. He also told us how important it is to work together because great things are not made by one person only. It was a beautiful experience to help my school garden look better and to make the farmer very happy.


4.     Multi-method: The garden project allows students and professors to engage in experiential learning and “to work together to acquire knowledge and play a role in shaping the environment of their educational institution” (UNESCO, 2006, p. 17). Due to its central location on campus, the garden draws onlookers and visitors and invites the community to see changes taking place in real time. Two years ago, the facilities department set up tables with benches around the garden, and now many students, faculty, and staff enjoy the green space while they eat lunch or prepare for classes.


5.     Participatory decision-making: While I still plan lessons and decide on the grading system, I invite students to participate in decisions on how we shape the classroom learning experience. Would it better to write reflection paragraphs or create PowerPoint presentations about the visit to the Environmental Center? Should we have a traditional quiz on the garden terms, or should we try a role-play that includes the new vocabulary instead? Students get to voice their preferences, and we decide with a show of hands.


6.     Applicability: According to the UNDESD document, “the learning experiences offered are integrated in day to day personal and professional life.” When asked what the benefits of a campus garden were, one student explained: “Having a garden on campus is great because it allows the students to participate in the maintenance, fertilization, and care of plants, and the management of water…Also, the students can learn techniques in how to plant an organic garden themselves.” Many students report that they started conserving water and implemented sustainable ways of living in their own homes as a result of what we learned in class.


7.     Locally relevant: This last characteristic defines the Organic Garden Project, which started before the reawakening of the local farmers’ market movement in Miami. There was a time when I had to drive thirty minutes to buy tomatoes and cucumbers from one of the few remaining U-Pick-It growers or the Knaus Berry Farm in the Redlands, a rural area south of Miami. Now I simply swing by the garden to fill my salad bowl. Others benefit as well.  The college’s organic buying club CROPS (Community Rooted Organic Produce Services) supplements its shares with herbs that are literally rooted in the community: parsley, cilantro, and basil planted and harvested in the garden by service learning students. What could be more locally relevant?


To conclude, the Organic Garden Project offers faculty and students an opportunity to apply the key characteristics of ESD within the context of higher education. As Miami Dade College embraces its new student success and completion initiative, MDC3, our traditional ideas of what constitutes success and what promotes retention and graduation are reexamined. In a small but noticeable way the garden is contributing to creating the “Community of Well-Being” that the Earth Ethics Institute envisions. As one student elaborated:


The garden helps us practice English and enrich our vocabulary. Besides, organic food is richer in vitamins and nutrients, and it reduces the impact of toxic chemicals in our bodies because it does not use synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. In addition, it is a great way to relax and be in touch with nature. For me, it has been a great experience. In my opinion, it is a wonderful idea to have an organic garden, and it would be fantastic to expand this experience to every student of the college.


A few weeks ago, the bananas were finally ready to be harvested. Two students held the bottom of the bunch while the farmer skillfully severed the top with his rusty machete. Despite the students’ best effort, the bunch crashed to the ground with a thump, resulting in some bananas splitting open. “Never underestimate the power of gravity,” their surprised looks indicated. The students divided the huge bunch into individual hands and hosed them off like one would on a farm. Everyone got to take some green crescents home. We give to the garden, and the garden gives back to us.


Back in the speech class, final reflections on the garden project were due. Marilyn from the Dominican Republic summed up her experience: “Personally, I like to go see how our plants are growing. It is like having something that is yours at the College. It is a way to feel less alone in this city and more connected with MDC.”  Maybe I should show these reflection paragraphs to our administrators in charge of retention. If more of our urban commuter students begin to feel this way, completion rates may improve, too.





UNESCO. (2006). United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development

 2005-2014.  Framework for the UNDESD International Implementation Scheme. Retrieved December 18, 2011, from

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