GCU's farm fills neighbors' plates, students' souls

GCU Outdoor Recreation Program members plant greens in the Canyon Urban Farms raised beds.

Story by Mike Kilen
Photos by Ralph Freso
GCU News Bureau

Nathan Cooper looked across the farm in the middle of the Grand Canyon University campus, where spinach and tomatoes, melons and broccoli were growing amid students tending them. It’s always easier for farmers to tell stories standing shoulder to shoulder, looking out.

“There was this old woman in my hometown in Minnesota …” the Manager of GCU's Canyon Urban Farms began.

A smile appeared. Every year, the woman had grown a bountiful patch of tomatoes and gave them all away. Everyone in town knew it. There was a waiting list to get her tomatoes that came from a seed variety dating back decades in her family.

“She died a couple years ago,” Cooper said. “I want to get one of her seeds and dedicate a spot to her here.”

Students Savannah Miles and Gracie Grettenberger (from left) listen as Canyon Urban Farms Manager Nathan Cooper gives them planting tips.

Canyon Urban Farms has that woman’s sentiment at its heart — growing as an act of giving. Cooper had just delivered a batch of produce to Lutheran Social Services for the neighborhood refugee population.

A year into the project, he has the quarter-acre plot to the north of Agave teeming with life – and not just with plants: Students have found it a place of contemplation, a reminder of grandma and renewed growth during a rough pandemic year.

“This was rocky soil,” Cooper told group a half-dozen students gathered by the GCU Outdoor Recreation Program, which arrives weekly to tend the garden and learn from it. “It is turning into the best soil you will ever find.”

The 35 raised beds are filled with it, and now several in-ground raised beds are teeming with organic matter, supplied by compost bins of rotting vegetables and other waste.

He urged the students to contribute to the garden by taking a small container, toss in it waste from their rooms – banana peels, coffee grounds, egg shells – and bring it to the compost bins, where it will be heated by bacteria’s hard work, turned and broken down into the magic of beautiful natural fertilizer.

“As you work, just pick up a handful of the dirt,” he told them. “You will see how much more living it is. You can feel it.”

Students found there is nothing like the taste of a carrot fresh from the ground.

It reminded senior Payton Oxner of his grandmother’s garden in South Dakota.

“During the pandemic, that’s where they got a lot of their food,” he said.

During the pandemic, this is where students interested in outdoor recreation, got a lot of its nature. With off-campus outings restricted, it was a welcome addition to step outside into new possibilities.

“COVID took so much from us, so we wanted to create community right here on campus,” said senior trip guide Gracie Grettenberger. “When you say, ‘We have a garden on campus.’ What? They want to be a part of developing it.

“Living in a dorm, we don’t have the opportunity to garden on our own. They miss this, and being able to do this on a campus is a mindful experience.”

It’s part of what brought freshman Savannah Miles to the garden, where she held a package of three different varieties of peppers to plant in an in-ground bed that Cooper called the “salsa garden,” where in weeks peppers and tomatoes can make a delicious addition to any meal.

Gracie Grettenberger of the Outdoor Recreation Program plants seeds in the in-ground beds.

“It’s a meditative activity that wipes away the stress,” she said. “It’s beautiful to make your own produce. Plus, I like dirt. I like playing in dirt.”

Twenty-six vegetables of numerous varieties grow here in the shadow of the six-story Agave Apartments, and Cooper has had to learn which areas get just the right amount of sun for each type of produce.

Some of the broccoli has bolted, but he tells a student that even the leaves can be used to juice.

Kaleb Morrow said that’s also why he and other students are interested in a garden – to go back to the ways of healthy eating, fresh from the dirt outside your room.

“It takes some time to know the intricacies, but you can grow anything,” he said.

While a student’s mobile phone sat in the dirt, leaned against a Bluetooth speaker playing singer/songwriter tunes you'd hear in a coffee shop, Cooper talked of the appeal of this garden -- not only as a place to reap the fruit of your labor, but as a tool of education. He urged each student to take a package of herb seeds to put in a pot in their rooms.

“You throw a seed in the ground and it comes back a living thing,” he said.

Savannah Miles prepares the ground for planting.

His goal is also to be a good steward of the earth with a self-sustaining garden, using the seeds to plant next year’s crop and using food waste to regenerate the soil.

Plans are growing as fast as the vegetables beyond its primary goal of helping feed the neighborhood.

New wheeled planters for maximizing growing location are planned for the University's 27th Avenue office complex. A farmers’ market for community members is on his wish list, as are more gatherings on the east end of the acreage, saved as a place for teaching locations or for students to quietly gather among new life.

This virus, he said, created a lot of longing for a place like this.

“There is a lot of good that can be done from this garden.”

Grand Canyon University senior writer Mike Kilen can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-6764.


Related content:

GCU Today: GCU’s urban farms plant seeds to nourish neighbors

GCU Today: GCU students Serve the City by building a garden


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