Central College News

Featured: Digging Organic

October 31, 2012

The Central College organic garden isn’t just blooming in size—it’s budding in interest. With some students still ignorant of its existence, faculty and a few students are trying to build awareness from the ground up. Twelve years after its planting, the organic garden has become a staple on campus—in classes and the kitchen. It started with the goal of being community garden space—but grew into so much more.



Begun in 2000 by Louise Zaffiro, professor emerita of chemistry, the garden took shape on a small plot of land on the west side of campus. To make way for the proposed garden, a vacant house was removed and the basement filled with rocky dirt to raise future plant beds. But getting started wasn’t as simple as it seems.

Jim Zaffiro explains about different varieties of tomato to Adam Ledvina.

Jim Zaffiro, Louise’s husband and professor of political science and coordinator of global sustainability education, explains how the college was originally anxious about the organic garden

“There was a concern back in 1999 that it might look messy,” he says with a laugh. “I think we’ve convinced them that it isn’t.”

Since its inception, many people have worked tirelessly to make the garden an inviting space. Wit colors ranging from green and red tomatoes to shoots of yellow sunflowers, the garden attracts students and employees alike. Every year, workers build soil quality and plots to increase traffic as well as produce. And there are no signs of slowing down.


On a college campus, the main objective of the organic garden is knowledge. Through opportunities such as digging potatoes and growing tomatoes, there are always chances for students to learn and get a little dirty.

“I think the main value is that it creates some very interesting and valuable opportunities for teaching and hands-on learning for our own students and younger students in the area,” Zaffiro says of the garden. “There are a lot of messages that we can reinforce—the value of local, the value of organic and the value of knowledge of food growth.”

Junior Shelby Mendoza, who worked in the garden all summer, inspects some kale.

Taking the time to understand how organic foods are grown is an educational process. With the two primary benefits of organic agriculture, Central can keep students healthy and the campus environmentally friendly.

“When you eat organic, you are not eating pesticide residues, you are not eating synthetic chemicals or fertilizers,” Zaffiro says. “And most of the produce from the garden goes directly back to the college, feeding students in Central Market.”

As environmental stewards, garden caretakers only use agriculture methods free of artificial fertilizers, pesticides or genetically-modified organisms. By recycling materials and minimizing waste, the garden promotes health and diversity within the small ecosystem.

“Because you are not using the substances, you are not contaminating the water table or putting them into the soil,” explains Zaffiro. “You are maintaining a natural balance with beneficial insects and plant diversity. It’s an important living laboratory.”

As an outdoor classroom, the garden is a place for students to learn and experiment with different varieties of plants, including about 30 different types of tomatoes, carrots, potatoes, apples and honey bees. As the garden expands, so does student interest.



Mendoza, Ledvina and Larson work in the garden in the fall.

Unlike the traditional classroom, some Central students are earning a few bumps and bruises while learning about organic agriculture. Senior Lars Larson and junior Adam Ledvina have definitely taken the hands-on approach as self-appointed “chairmen of the garden.”

Ledvina, an environmental studies major, and Larson, an art major with business management and global sustainability minors, knew the year was off to a great start after tackling their first garden challenge. Returning to campus over the summer for cross country camp, the pair decided to check in at the garden, discovering a few thousand unwelcome visitors—wasps.

“They had a pretty big hive going in the compost bin, and nobody wanted to deal with it,” recalls Larson. “But we took it upon ourselves to slowly dig it out and take the hive somewhere else.”

Not wanting to scare away potential volunteers, they attempted to move the hive. Easier said than done, especially in shorts and T-shirts. “We took the barrier out of the pile and tried to dig it out,” says Ledvina with a laugh. “But we started to get stung and had to retreat.”

Returning with a mosquito mask and more clothing, they took another stab at the nest. Failing to remove the wasps on the second try, they resorted to extreme measures: full-length clothing, a motorcycle helmet and goggles. After finally ridding the compost pile of wasps, Larson and Ledvina could get down to work.

Larson’s special crop are these carrots, which he acquired and planted himself.

As a senior seminar project, Ledvina is working with fellow environmental studies major Mitch Nicholson to compost waste in the dorms. Setting out compost bins in 12 different locations, the two pick up compost every Thursday and haul it to the garden. “It’s fun to see the chemistry that happens,” Ledvina says of composting. “We had the bin full one day, and the next day it was down six inches just because of all the chemicals mixing in there. I saw steam coming out when I was turning it, so I stuck a thermometer in and it was 150 degrees Fahrenheit.”

Reusing food waste on campus is just one way the pair is raising awareness of the garden and environmental issues. Recently, they held a demonstration of building compost bins for the Central community—and then doubled the space for composting. They say improvement and education are their main priorities.

“I love hearing from people who want to get involved,” says Ledvina. “They’re not doing it for credit or for service learning; they just want to do it for fun.”



In a little more than a decade, the garden has flourished from a wild plot of land into an organized, sustainable environment. And it isn’t going to stop there. With a “master plan” in mind, says Zaffiro, the garden should continue taking shape in the near future, with plans for benches, paths and an improved shed on the table.

Ledvina inspects a tomato for ripeness.

Recently, the garden gained more  fruit trees, in addition to the heirloom apple orchard dedicated to Dr. David and Betsy Roe’s commitment to sustainability.

On top of tending fruit, students now have the chance to learn about honey bees. “This time next year, we will have Central College honey,” says Zaffiro.

Larson and Ledvina just hope that the garden teaches people a little bit about how their food is processed. “People grow up thinking their food comes from a store,” Larson says with a smile.

Ledvina continues, “A lot of this stuff doesn’t get taught in everyday classes. It used to be everybody knew this kind of stuff—nowadays it kind of fades out of everyone’s lives.”

With the enthusiasm of students increasing, the value of the organic garden is sure to excite many more.

“The organic garden is a practical, hands-on thing,” Zaffiro says. “It’s doing cool things, maybe on a small scale, but the significance is bigger than you would ever think.”



Watch Larson’s and Ledvina’s final successful attempt to conquer wasp nation.