Students contribute to garden project through service-learning courses

By:    Date: 01-17-2014

UA students learn about organic gardening, operating a nonprofit and marketing while partnering with Druid City Garden Project, an organization that connects kids to their food sources and teaches them about healthy eating.



Alliemarie Humphries, a senior majoring in English, isn’t afraid of getting her hands dirty. As an intern for the Druid City Garden Project in Tuscaloosa, Humphries spent the summer of 2013 seeding, maintaining and preparing harvests for sale each week at a local farmers’ market.

Humphries’ service with the nonprofit was part of Organic Farming II, an independent study through The University of Alabama’s New College.

“The internship was the highlight of my summer,” Humphries said. “We were exposed to what it means to work in a nonprofit organization and to work in a full-time garden.”

UA students have contributed to the Druid City Garden Project through multiple service-learning courses since the organization was launched in May 2010. With gardens located at elementary schools, DCGP hosts approximately 450 children each week who work alongside UA students and learn about healthy eating, community gardening and sustainability. In 2013, volunteers (the vast majority of whom are UA students) dedicated 1,102 hours of service to the project, with 455 individual visits to the gardens.


Recent UA graduate Heath Thompson worked with DCGP from Summer 2012 through Spring 2013 and was in charge of DCGP’s composting program for six months. ABOVE: UA student Sophia Ritchey works in the garden with University Place Elementary School student Alessandra Ashford.

In the past year, DCGP has partnered with: students in the Culverhouse College of Commerce, who prepared DCGP’s annual report; New College, which offered Organic Farming I and Organic Farming II as a course and an independent study, respectively; Honors College students, who facilitated garden lessons for children at two elementary schools through UH 120 Let’s Grow; UA’s Chapter of Engineers Without Borders, which constructed a greenhouse at DCGP’s University Place Elementary School garden; the College of Human Environmental Sciences for recipe cards; and the College of Communication and Information Sciences, which assisted in the advertising campaign for DCGP’s fall 2013 fundraising event, The Garden Party, which featured food from local farmers prepared by Tuscaloosa restaurants.

In NEW 226 Organic Farming I, which covers the basics of organic farming while addressing questions about organic versus industrial agriculture models in relation to current environmental problems and solutions, students must design and carry out a project over the semester.

Emily Conner, a New College and English instructor who taught the course, said students can do their long-term project with any community group, but most choose DCGP.

“One group of students matched garden lesson plans with the Alabama public school curriculum; another group made beautiful signs for the farm stand and the garden,” Conner said. “We’ve had students focus on compost all semester, taking charge of the composting system at DCGP and creating their own at a sorority house. Others have designed long-term crop rotation plans for the UP garden.”


Children and UA students sell DCGP produce at local markets.

Lindsay Turner, executive director of DCGP, created the Organic Farming II internship in May 2013. She said students gain a deeper understanding of farm management, including pest controls, crop rotation and soil tending, through this course. The class also teaches marketing.

“These direct-marketing practices are crucial to the success of small farmers in reaching their customer base,” Turner said. “It is not enough to grow healthy, delicious veggies if you do not create a market for them.”

In Summer 2013, Organic Farming II interns worked 40 hours over eight weeks and spent five hours weekly in DCGP’s garden at University Place Elementary School. The original garden and school were damaged by the April 2011 tornado. DCGP built a second garden of raised beds at a temporary school, then doubled the size of the original garden and reopened it in August 2013, just before children returned.

On weekends, students worked at the Tuscaloosa River Market in order to learn direct-marketing techniques typically utilized by nonprofits, small farmers and craftspeople to establish themselves in communities.

“It is so important to support local farmers and vendors,” Humphries said. “There’s a security and comfort level when you can actually touch the product fresh from the ground or from the hands that crafted the product. Buying local means helping build a stronger community.”


UA student Alliemarie Humphries works with University Place student Xavier Ashford.

Kait Riley, a junior majoring in geography, said she enrolled in organic-farming classes to escape the monotony of the classroom and gain hands-on experience.

“At the River Market, this was a great experience for me to talk to folks about how DCGP is very passionate about teaching youth not only about growing food, but about the environmental benefits of growing organic,” Riley said.

Interns played a major role in bed preparation, seeding and transplanting summer crops.

“I loved being able to do some hard work for an organization that focuses on something that I am passionate about and allows me to learn new skills,” Riley said.

Heath Thompson, a recent UA graduate, worked with DCGP through Organic Farming I in summer 2012 and as an intern in fall 2012 and spring 2013. He was in charge of DCGP’s composting program for six months, and his New College senior project on composting was based on this experience,

“I was a full-time student getting two degrees,” Thompson said. “The garden was a way for me to get out of the classroom and library and away from the rigorous college schedule,” Thompson said.

It also was a good fit with his New College major.

“It was a way for me to not just study, but implement some of the things I was learning as part of my environmental studies major,” Thompson said.

In August 2013, DCGP launched “A Garden in Every School: The Incubator Program.” The organization expanded in Fall 2013 to three additional elementary schools: Woodland Forrest Elementary School, Oakdale Elementary School and the Sunshine School.

“We have a dream that one day every school in Alabama will have a school garden,” Turner said. “We will continue to educate and promote sustainable, local foods while also providing critical science and math lessons to elementary students.” DCGP utilizes a curriculum that meets Alabama’s course of study guidelines for science and math, and teaches educators how to use a garden as a learning tool.

In Spring 2014, Honors College launched UH 120 Let’s Grow, in which UA students help facilitate lessons in DCGP gardens at two Tuscaloosa-area elementary schools while learning about experiential education, food systems and child nutrition. Conner teaches this course, and Rashmi Grace, education director of DCGP, oversees students in the field.

At a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the DCGP greenhouse, Xavier Ashford, a third grader at University Place Elementary, said he loves his experiences at the garden. He said he has eaten peas he planted himself.

“They were tasty,” he said. “I feel like I can plant anything.”

Xavier’s mother, Catenya McHenry Ashford, said her three children have grown broccoli, strawberries, carrots, kale and spinach and know the nutritional content of the food. They also are more willing to eat vegetables since becoming involved with DCGP.

“It has been wonderful to get them to see they can grow their own food,” Ashford said. “Getting them to eat healthy is sometimes a challenge. Like anything, when you’ve had a hand in it, it becomes your own.”

For more information about UA service-learning opportunities with Druid City Garden Project, contact Josalyn Randall at or 205-523-5450.


Philosophy students volunteer with DCGP while studying theories of social justice

Students enrolled in PHL 231 Social Justice in Practice, a service-learning course taught by Rekha Nath, assistant professor of philosophy, and first offered in Spring 2013, also volunteered with Druid City Garden Project. Students studied various theories of social justice while dedicating 60 service hours to DCGP, Tuscaloosa Temporary Emergency Services and Tuscaloosa’s One Place, a family resource center.

Alex Harris, a junior majoring in philosophy, said she learned from both the course and the garden how much work goes into developing a nonprofit organization.

Harris said a dilemma PHL 231 focused on was whether the government is justified in providing financial assistance to nonprofits. She wrote her final paper on the subject.

“I was actually able to assist in teaching a few elementary classes in the garden, which involved the kids learning about healthy eating and gardening,” Harris said. “Noticing how much of an impact the garden exercises made on kids at such a young age, it seemed clear to me that such organizations should be supported by the government, as the repercussions of promoting healthy eating could be huge.”

For more information about service-learning opportunities through PHL 231 Social Justice in Practice, contact Rekha Nath at or 205-348-0407.