From the Ground Up: How the NCC East 40 Community Garden Kindles Our Creative Fire

I left my suburban garden last June with too many tomato seedlings. We needed to find a home – fast. When I taught ESL at NCC, I was always so grateful for the East 40. But I couldn’t imagine packing my planting vision into the “family plot” I shared with my mom and dad. So late into the season, I surrendered. Community was my only option. Our family of three rallied together to tame the weeds.

The whole property was once wilderness and not that long ago. Nine years later, driving down the gravel road to the East 40, you’re greeted by families. Vibrant purple and pink petunias paired with horseradish, nestled on either side of my massive potato planter, to protect the potato leaves from incoming pests. Blooming cosmos in pockets carefully constructed of straw and compost across the way from the hoophouse where students tend to young greens. My father’s Center for Clay and Fire has set up camp here too, a sanctuary for ceramics students to process clay straight from the ground, fire pots on-site, and eventually sell their work at the college’s farmers market on Wednesdays. Just like the potatoes with their companions, we have everything we need in one place.

Between the main campus and several local nurseries, the NCC East 40 Community Garden was planted at a convenient location yet private, tucked along a well-preserved tree line, lush green in summer, bold and bright with autumnal foliage come October. Our organized paradise started, as all gardens do, with a dream.

How our green thumbs got the green light

  • Liz Wagner starting seedlings for the NCC East 40 Community Garden.
  • Building raised beds at the NCC East 40 Community Garden
  • Starting a community garden in the Lehigh Valley - NCC East 40 Community Garden
  • Students and volunteers build a new structure at the NCC East 40 Community Garden.

Who would become the East 40 coordinator – Kelly Allen – wanted to start small. His vision always centered around the creation of an outdoor learning space, but it wasn’t his dream, at first, to cultivate the 40 acres east of campus. Kelly, starting as an adjunct professor of English at NCC in 2009, wanted to bring a community garden to a much smaller space near Penn Hall.

Meanwhile, newlyweds Kelly Allen and Meg Mikovits planted their own garden. Meg had started as Moravian College’s writing center director. Their first year was pretty ambitious – chickens lay eggs and vegetable plants led lives of their own throughout the spring, summer and fall. It was a powerful learning experience.

“I made silly mistakes like building a trellis for bush beans,” Kelly remembers.

But being academics, they knew how to apply research. Together, they made important connections between critical pedagogy and experiential learning involving the growth and consumption of food.

“Marriage, gardening and teaching all happened that same summer,” he says.

So, Kelly’s conversations at NCC with other gardeners stemmed from the home. On campus, rumors spread that the 40 acre-property could be turned into athletic fields, or, to the budding gardening community’s disappointment, a parking lot. To stop this from happening, faculty from the existing Environmental Task Force flocked to Kelly’s office. Student life director Frank Pologruto, professor of communication Donna Acerra, and professor of philosophy Ken Burak were instrumental in the first proposal for the property.

“We didn’t have much of a green identity,” Kelly reflects. “People like Frank, Donna and Ken saw potential.”

That’s when NCC’s environmental tasks turned into environmental actions. Their proposal presented several options, but the top two were: 1) let the space go back to native woodlands, or 2) farm it.

Woods sound great, in theory, but a field of unwieldy trees and bushes and grasses is a magnet for invasive species. Maintaining the woodland could possibly be more intensive (and expensive), the team realized, and the possibility of a thriving garden became more enticing.

However, there was a key ingredient missing – students. Kelly asked the question which should be at the core of every decision made on a college campus: “Where’s the student vision and how’s this impacting their academic experience?”

For the garden to be communal, it needed to include the student community.

Mike McDonald was the first student to put roots down. Leading the project’s steering committee, Mike encouraged more students, staff, and faculty to take action. By Fall 2010, the college president Art Scott asked Kelly to come to his office. A process that could have taken years took months, and in December 2010, the garden got the green light.

But they still needed to get out of the weeds. The first summer, Kelly and Mike prepared the land and began growing. Overcoming obstacles meant balancing three things: money, labor and knowledge. Grateful for the increasing support from the college, as more students participate, the more the garden grows.

Now, we have a prolific vegetable garden, an orchard, a vineyard, a compost area, a beehive and flowers to attract these pollinators – all connected in a single ecosystem.

Cultivating the literary and culinary arts

  • Romanesco harvested at the NCC East 40 Community Garden.
  • Bethany Towne, a massage therapy student, agrees no-till is the way to go. She is farming one acre to supply several Lehigh Valley vendors with fresh ingredients: NCC’s student-run restaurant Hampton Winds, Nature's Way Market, the Kellyn Foundation, Local Mama Catering Company, and Lit Coffee Roastery and Bakery.
  • Our Halloween at the NCC Farmers Market, Wednesdays 10-2.

The East 40 stands as a pillar among other Lehigh Valley community gardens where students, staff, their families, and the larger community unite over their passion for growing fresh food.

Sowing the seeds across campus, the community makes strong connections between the sciences and humanities.

While it was snowing at the start of the semester, American Literature II learned about famous authors in the comfort of a classroom. Then, as the daffodils bloomed, they took that into the natural world. If author Kate Chopin was out at the East 40, they considered, how would she use language to describe this space and the stories it holds?

To better understand the dynamics of outdoor learning, psychology professors are conducting an experiment. Three instructors from the communications department, one from English and another from sociology are each teaching the same class, one inside and one outside to prove whether outdoor learning truly benefits student success. (This isn’t news to the students in the control and experiment groups. They know they are being studied while they are studying.)

Still, the garden is not an exact science. As the climate shifts, so does the outdoor learning environment.

“Every year is different and depends on our ability to adapt to those changes,” Kelly says.

Fences keep the increasing deer at bay and the no-till method allows the soil to absorb the heavy rainfall we’ve had the past few summers.

Bethany Towne, a massage therapy student, agrees no-till is the way to go. She is farming one acre to supply several Lehigh Valley vendors with fresh ingredients: NCC’s student-run restaurant Hampton Winds, Nature’s Way Market, the Kellyn Foundation, Local Mama Catering Company, and Lit Coffee Roastery and Bakery. As planned, she harvested rows and rows of onions this year. The vegetable many cooks use to start a recipe does not interest deer, rabbits or groundhogs (or even our curious fox friend).

Both gardeners and farmers worry about critters and climate. Farmers dependent on crops and clients tend to have a different relationship with the land.

“If you make a mistake in the garden, you can dig out five kale plants and survive the winter,” Bethany says. “There’s more pressure on a farm to make decisions that may or may not be best for the soil, the ecosystem and public health.”

But this young farmer’s mindset is more holistic. “Both farming and gardening can connect the grower to the earth,” she says.

Growers are creative people. The gardener who is a biologist, potter, writer, or cook envisions what the space will look like tomorrow after the storm, next year after the snow. Like any art project, the garden starts with a blank canvas. The earth does a beautiful job painting it; dandelions attract bees in spring then comes the queen anne’s lace in summer. My modest pollinator patch keeps our bees nuzzling in yarrow, salvia and catmint.

Sparking inspiration for the Center for Clay and Fire

  • Teabowl by ceramics professor and artist Walter Heath, founder of the NCC Center for Clay and Fire. Northampton Community College / NCC East 40 Community Garden, Green Pond Road in Bethlehem, PA.
  • ncc east 40 community garden center for clay and fire how community gardening helps me garden mindfully
  • center for clay and fire ncc east 40 community garden how community gardening helps me garden mindfully
  • ncc east 40 community garden how community gardening helps me garden mindfully
  • Amanda Jimenez, Tony Williams, and Sienna Mae Heath (me) exploring the clay art at the NCC Farmers Market, Wednesdays 10-2, Bethlehem, PA.
  • Bahereh Khodadoost selling her original clay art at NCC's craft show and the NCC Farmers Market - Northampton Community College, Green Pond Road in Bethlehem, PA.

The East 40 is also a hub for visual artists. While many harvest food, NCC’s ceramics students harvest clay. At the NCC East 40 Center for Clay and Fire, professor Walter Heath teaches how to process, sculpt, glaze, and fire pottery – all on-site. Even our Indian corn is used for texture on tea bowls.

“Our experience feels so spontaneous and serendipitous,” Walter says. “Poetic yet practical. In the garden, there is a primal connection to clay, that one doesn’t get by taking clay out of a box, forming it and firing it in an electric kiln.”

Everything they need is at the garden, including the kiln. During the First Ancestors workshop every summer they do a “fast fire.” Compared to the traditional lengthy wood firing, the fast fire is a different animal (and it conserves wood). Not better, not worse … just different. Results depend on the flame and the ash deposits, which are less pronounced in a short fast fire than in a traditional wood firing because it lasts five hours, not five days.

Fast fire rests between this traditional wood firing and raku. While raku swiftly produces decorative, often iridescent pottery, the fast fire pieces are functional. The beauty of the experience – elements of each type of firing, but the outcome is of a different nature.

“First Ancestors” is rather fitting because the first known ceramic object that represents a human symbolizes fertility. She is the Venus of Dolni Vestonice. She, and we, join a long line of animals. There was a time before us, and there will be a time after. It’s up to the group of potters to pave the way.

The family tree rings true for our family of three – my father Walter (a transplant from Oklahoma), my mother Bahereh Khodadoost (a transplant from Iran), and me. Our road led to the Lehigh Valley and finally to Northampton Community College where we feel very much at home.

“To be a family of artists/gardeners it all comes down to our ability to stay united and to stay One with Nature,” Bahereh says. “The air, water, clay soil, fire and light, and the universe all play a role in the process which in return produces soulful produce and vessels that nourishes our spirit. I consider myself only as a co-creator in the whole process. We do our part from our creative mind and from our heart, and we, individually and collectively, become a part of this unique process. We become a part of the sacredness of it all.”

“Sacredness is the reality embedded in every human being and in every creation,” she says. “As every season is a renewal of the last one, yet it is different and unique in its own right, the same is true with firing, especially with raku or wood firing. Every firing carries some elements from the previous firings, yet it is unique and it is different than the ones who have come before it, and each holds its own unique beauty.”

Ancient pottery lineage follows from father to son to grandson. Now, we welcome anyone into the tribe. Here at the East 40, international students grow food they miss from their home countries. Those interested in sustainable food systems gain perspective abroad and share the lessons they learned. Anyone hungry for stray squashes is welcome. Community gardening has the power to spark light in all of us – gardeners who write, who cook, who sculpt, who study, who travel. Community creates the balance our planet currently craves. Companion plants are like people. They take care of each other.

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