Freshmen work with The Nashville Food Project’s urban gardens

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The Nashville Food Project is teaming up with 31 students in a Lipscomb University environmental biology course to design a rainwater catchment and irrigation system for its Wedgewood Urban Gardens and a plan for maximizing the garden as habitat for urban wildlife.

The students were on-site at the garden, at 613 Wedgewood Avenue, with The Nashville Food Project garden coordinator Christina Bentrup on Oct. 5 and 12 to perform initial surveys of the site for the irrigation and urban wildlife enhancement plan. Students will spend the next two months working on recommendations for the plans to be submitted to The Nashville Food Project.

Founded in 2005 as a community gardening space, the Wedgewood Urban Gardens was taken on by The Nashville Food Project in April 2011. The organization grows diverse seasonal crops used to support its hot meal and Project Pantry programs, which serve 13 Nashville communities about 3,000 hot meals per month. By using produce from its two urban gardens and food gleaned from local restaurants, Whole Foods and farms, The Nashville Food Project can feed residents of low-income communities for just 25 cents per serving.

“This isn’t a typical lab activity associated with a class; it’s a real need, a real problem-solving experience,” said James English, associate professor of sustainability who is teaching the course. “The proposals we give the urban garden, the answers these students come up with will actually make a difference in the world. Real people in our town will be better off and the environment will be better off thanks to the decisions these students make.”

The environmental biology course is one of many offered in partnership with Lipscomb’s service-learning program. Every undergraduate student is required to take at least one designated service-learning course.

One half of the class, including several engineering majors in addition to some environmental and sustainable science majors, will design a rainwater irrigation system using sustainable pumping. The students will need to figure out where to place various holding tanks, size and type of containers to catch rainwater and determine the most suitable and sustainable way to pump water over elevation changes in the garden.

“We don’t have any city water or an irrigation system, and we are a food production garden, so when it is a really wet year, we produce a lot, and when it’s a dry year, we can’t produce as much,” said Bentrup. “Rainwater harvesting will allow us to greatly extend our production.”

In fact, The Nashville Food Project has a grant to fund installing the system recommended by the students. The organization has the money and the manpower, but not “the brains” to make it happen, Bentrup said. “The students will be the brains for us in this project,” she said.

English has suggested to students that the proposed irrigation system could perhaps include a pumping system powered by solar energy, a hand pump or by someone riding a stationary bike whenever the pumps need to be in use.

The other half of the class, including students taking the course as a general education science course along with several environment and sustainable science majors, will propose ways to convert or preserve ground cover and other garden features to boost its use by urban wildlife. Urban wildlife includes frequent garden visitors such as bats; soil animals like salamanders, worms and grubs; migratory birds; small mammals; reptiles, amphibians and snakes; and owls. Students will make decisions on what to do with areas of the property that aren’t useful for farming to make it more attractive for wildlife, while not being at cross-purposes with the garden.

“This second project will benefit the Nashville environment itself by making our one-and-a-half acre space more of a refuge for wildlife. For example, we have two bathouses and the bats that live there eat mosquitoes, including mosquitoes that may carry West Nile virus,” Bentrup said.

While the garden already includes two bathouses and a beehive, English expects a need for more bat boxes, planting shade-tolerant species of local plants to provide enhanced habitat for migratory birds and more bee hives to make sure there are plenty of pollinators for the garden.

Students are expected to label items in the garden that play a role in promoting urban wildlife and possibly map a self-guided path through the garden.

“We really want to create an awareness of what creatures we share our environment with, how we can protect them and how they benefit the community,” said Bentrup.