SMC's Organic Learning Garden springs lush

Three years ago, during Santa Monica College's Club Row, student Erick Zavala, 21, approached the Club Grow tent hoping to win a tomato plant in a raffle the club held for new members. Their mission then was to teach people how to grow their own food. Little did Zavala know, winning that tomato plant would change his educational path, leading him to choose Political Science as a major with a focus on Environmental Politics.

Zavala was one of the many attendees at Tuesday's grand opening of the SMC Organic Learning Garden, a project directed toward raising awareness of organic farming, sustainability, food origins, and both plant and cultural diversity at the college. The event took place during SMC's Sustainability Week, though its unveiling was originally intended to be in November.

As assistant to the garden's coordinator, Dana Morgan, Zavala is part of the large team responsible for the completion of this project. He said: "Before the garden, when people asked what we did, we'd tell them that we were trying to learn how to grow our own food."

The reality was that the club was in the works of fulfilling a dream that a small group of students first formed five years ago. "Up ‘til now, it was all administrative work, getting our foot through the door and turning in paperwork. Now when someone tells us, 'I want to grow this,' I can say, 'Alright, let me show you,'" said Zavala.

The 3,200-square-foot garden is filled with plot bins, each maintained by different groups throughout campus who applied for some land to plant in. It is equipped with a weather station, an underground, 22,000-gallon cistern, and a keyhole-shaped planter, designed to facilitate teaching as people gather around it.

The $200,000 project was funded in part by the Associated Students, but mostly by a bond issue approved by the administration of SMC and Santa Monica residents. The bond also included the funding for the future SMC Student Services building and the outdoor classroom, just west of the garden.

The Organic Learning Garden will serve as an entryway for the Student Services building, the construction of which is expected to begin next year.

Building the garden proved to be an obstacle for the leaders of the project, who faced many challenges throughout the process. Union issues, lack of funding, and students transferring too quickly to see the fruits of their labor, were just some of the hurdles Morgan and her team had to overcome.

Director of Sustainability at SMC, Genevieve Bertone, said, "Dana Morgan has really been the consistent voice, and has stayed on as the adviser to Club Grow. Between her and where I work, the Center for Environmental Studies, it really provided a physical space for the students to come in. She provided the leadership. So I think those two ingredients, the center and Dana, were really essential for those seeds to keep growing to the project that it is today."

Bertone also illustrated the garden’s commitment to diversity with a wide variety of plants and a broad group of people—from administrators to students working the gardens.

SMC's president and superintendent, Chui L. Tsang, said: "There were a lot of desires to have this place. A lot of people and a lot of thoughts went into how it ought to be done. Now we actually get something here meeting all the different desires and needs. It represents the heart of the college. That's what we want to do."

As Morgan stated in her address at the grand opening, "This is really about the students." Zavala hopes to transfer into a four-year university that does not have a farm, so that he can start one. As for SMC, he hopes to leave behind the sustainable idea of having a student-run, cooperative farm.

Organic horticulture is an undertaking that future students can turn into a school tradition.