Fresh vegetables and herbs aren’t the only things sprouting up in the University of Richmond’s community garden — it’s also a hotbed for teaching students about sustainability; building relationships with faculty and staff; and strengthening community bonds.

Now in its third year, the community garden started with a push from Abby Ayers, wife of University President Edward Ayers, along with other faculty and staff. “Before we moved [to Richmond], I’d been toying around with the idea of a community garden to bring together children and the elderly,” Ayers says. “When we came here, I thought a campus garden might be fun instead. It’s a chance for people to chat in a more relaxed and casual environment and get to know each other.”

With help from Cary Jamieson, landscape design program specialist for the School of Continuing Studies (SCS), and Steve Glass, horticulturist and landscape manager, an open space of campus near the Country Club of Virginia was converted into a 25-plot garden.

“I’m a gardener at heart, but also very excited about the movement toward sustainability and education here on campus,” says Jamieson, who grew up on a farm along the James River. “I’m excited to share it and get students involved. If they haven’t already grown up gardening, it’s a wonderful opportunity for them to learn.”

“Students get to see how many benefits they can get out of home gardening and how easy it is,” says Megan Litke, sustainability coordinator. “Having something that’s right here for them to use and start learning how to grow their own food that they can bring home and cook in their apartments and residence halls is really important.”

But fresh vegetables aren’t all that students are getting out of the garden. While the bulk of the plots are for faculty and staff use, four are reserved for students. A team of 10 students water, weed, plant and harvest alongside Litke and other plot owners. “It’s a chance to interact with faculty and staff on a different level than just classroom learning,” she says. “You get to see what everyone else is working on and learn from their experience.”

Faculty and staff also are benefiting from the outside interaction, including projects that bring them together with Richmond community members. For example, Jamieson is coordinating a summer institute through SCS for local school teachers to learn how to create outdoor classrooms. In addition to bringing participants to the garden for hands-on demonstrations, she has been developing a reading list of outdoor education and gardening books with a member of UR’s library staff, while they’re both at work pulling weeds.

“I’ve gotten to know people across campus that I’ve never met before, and we’ve been learning how to collaborate more in what we do here on campus,” Jamieson says. “As we weed together and talk, we come up with new ideas and initiatives. It’s been a really wonderful experience to get people together when normally, we would have never met.”

And at the end of the day, gardeners are still enjoying the fruits of their labor, bringing home everything from watermelon, arugula and mustard greens to tomatoes, basil and pumpkins. When the growing season draws to a close, the gardeners enjoy a communal potluck dinner, hosted by Ayers, where they reflect on the year and talk about what to do in the future. Gardeners also bring a dish to share made from the vegetables and herbs they’ve grown, and awards are given for given for the best recipes and most unusual crops.

“I’m living off campus this year and cooking for myself,” says Jordan Cates, ’12, a student gardener. “I wanted to get more local produce, and the garden sounded like a lot of fun. And I feel like it’s a good life skill to know how to garden.”

“That experience of planting [a garden], watching it grow, and then eating the food, nothing is better,” Jamieson says. “When you’re in college, budgets are very tight and you can eat like a king if you grow your own garden.”