Student permaculture gardens take root at Greek houses

by Michael Qian | 4/20/15 6:34pm

When students imagine the lawns of Greek houses, they likely picture unkempt, weedy patches of grass dotted by the occasional runaway beer can. But imagine instead a permaculture garden thriving with fresh blueberries, plums, kiwis and more. In other words, envision a possibility that Malcolm Salovaara ’17 has helped actualize by implementing self-sustaining gardens on the properties of 10 different Greek houses.

By the end of this week, eight Greek organizations will have started the process of planting, with support from Salovaara, house members and other peers on campus. Permaculture, as Salovaara explains, involves cultivating plants that do not require annual replanting.

“There’s a lot of buzzwords, but really what it’s about is creating a system that uses the natural proclivity of living organisms — plant organisms — to accumulate value in the system, in the soil,” he said. “And thereby, that value translates into a more productive garden and a garden that is lower maintenance.”

Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority sustainability chair Emily Grotz ’16 said that many members of her house — one of the six sororities collaborating with Malcolm and his team on this project — were eager to help being planting last Friday.

Grotz said that sustainability should not be thought of as a nuisance, but rather as a more eco-friendly alternative. Permaculture gardens characterize this idea, she said, adding that working on the project was also a fun opportunity for sisterhood bonding.

Salovaara said the three largest gardens, found at Kappa, Alpha Phi and Alpha Xi Delta sororities, have over 15 woody plants, trees, shrubs and vines. These perennials will produce fruits, including persimmons, raspberries, strawberries and Asian pears.

He said that while these gardens will certainly not yield enough food to feed a house, they could change the way in which people look at the landscape and food around them. Moreover, he said a lot of the gardens were designed with the aim of creating something aesthetically beautiful in mind.

Jonah Sternthal ’18, one of Salovaara’s collaborators, became interested in permaculture after spending time at the Dartmouth Organic Farm and hearing a presentation about this project.

“Permaculture is a lot about observing and experimentation,” Sternthal said. “It’s also cool to put time and effort into sustenance, and then being able to reap the benefits afterward, and doing so with as little impact on the environment as possible.”

This Wednesday, Alpha Chi Alpha fraternity members will be planting three plum trees, former houseman John Conley ’15 said.

“We wanted to collaborate with [Salovaara] because his permaculture project seemed like a great way to build community and bring some fresh fruits and vegetables to our house,” Conley said. “We already have a group of brothers who cook dinner every week, and it’d be exciting to see them use produce grown on our lawn.”

Salovaara said that, with coordination between Greek house sustainability chairs and students interested in working on this project, these gardens would only require occasional attention and little maintenance.

Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity member Dave Klinges ’17 said he and several other members were immediately interested after hearing about Salovaara’s idea for a sustainable garden. The fraternity is scheduled to plant nine trees tomorrow, and will plant more in the coming week.

“Not speaking solely for Sig Ep, but maybe overall, I think this is a movement that the Greek system could really embrace and has not done so to the extent that [it] could,” Klinges said. “This should be something that has practically universal involvement in the houses because there’s really no downsides to it, other than the logistics involved.”

Conley and Grotz said people in their respective houses have all responded positively to the garden planting idea.

Kappa Delta sorority sustainability chair Maddie Koehler ’17 said planting at KD is not yet underway, but that it will likely happen in the next two to three weeks.

“For me personally, it’s something that I would be interested in pursuing because our house is new and we don’t have a ton of landscaping, so it’s just like a cool project,” she said.

In the future, Salovaara said this permaculture project could expand to more Greek houses, off campus houses and houses in the Upper Valley. Furthermore, these efforts could potentially be incorporated into new Moving Dartmouth Forward housing communities, he said.

Salovaara, who first learned about permaculture in high school, said his idea is also about engaging people and “inspiring a living laboratory” idea — one that he believes administrators would want to promote.

He said his project, financed by the Milton Sims Kramer ’54 Memorial Prize and the Revolving Green Loan Fund, operates under a total budget of about $6,000. In addition, the Dartmouth Organic Farm sponsors this initiative.

Kappa Delta Epsilon and Sigma Delta sororities, Tabard coed fraternity and Chi Gamma Epsilon fraternity are also participating in this project.

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