ECC Students Are Learning and Growing

Growing and utilizing locally sourced food products has become more 

By Catherine Miller

Produce grown at the Learning Garden.
Produce grown at the Learning Garden.

As many students head back into the classroom this fall, one group of students is completing its summer studies from a sunshine riddled setting. They have spent the heat-driven months lakeside in the heart of Canalside.

Learning to grow asparagus, zucchini and everything in between, the students in Erie Community College’s “Working in a Learning Garden” class began their sessions by growing plants from seeds. They ended the summer semester by harvesting purple tomatoes, cucumbers and various peppers as well as edible flowers and herbs.

Meant to be more than just a session on growing vegetables, the Learning Garden class teaches lessons on sustainability, what “farm to table” looks like in a real-world setting, the importance of using locally grown products for both health and financial benefits in the food industry and how to grow a successful garden without the need for pesticides and herbicides.

Initiated by Kristin Goss, department chairwoman at ECC’s culinary arts program, she says she was motivated to start the class as she is a cancer survivor who wanted to promote healthful eating habits.

“There are ways to grow vegetation successfully without the need for chemicals,” Goss said. “We use companion planting to deter pests, attract pollinators, and improve soil fertility. We educate the students on good bugs versus bad bugs and that there are times you have to sacrifice one plant to allow another plant to flourish.”

Situated in downtown Buffalo at the corner of Main and Scott streets in the shadow of the Marriott Hotel, the Learning Garden is often overlooked by passers-by. But it’s a welcome respite for those that notice the benches and wish to surround themselves in natural beauty amidst flowers and vegetation. The summer students work in the garden each Thursday to weed, cultivate and harvest the garden. The items they harvest are brought back to school for use in the culinary arts curriculum.

While some vegetables and herbs are used at the time of the harvest the students also use preservation techniques to allow utilization of the crops throughout the coming semesters.

“The students truly enjoy being out here,” Goss said. “Many of them have never gardened before. Every week we harvest something from the garden to use at school, even if it’s just herbs to make a compound butter to freeze for future classes.  Each year, we dry seeds for use in the following summer’s class to demonstrate the full circle of the gardening experience.”

In addition to the hands-on education, the students realize the importance of using local ingredients to minimize food-labor costs and the importance of developing menus to include “in season” items in restaurants. With current produce pricing becoming volatile due to shipping issues, droughts and other weather-related issues, growing and utilizing locally sourced food products has become more important than ever.

At the onset of the semester the students analyze and plan their garden and determine what the 2,000-square-foot garden will look like, planning the space needed for each of their companion planting areas. They evaluate what plants have reseeded on their own and decide which of the perennial plants, such as lavender and various flowers, will be left to attract pollinators and which will be moved.

Throughout the session the students chart and notate what works well in the garden as well as what doesn’t, and learn how temperature, rain amounts and even wind produce varying results. These lessons will be taken with them to the restaurants that employ them in the future.

The ECC Learning Garden course goes beyond teaching the fundamentals of gardening. It emphasizes the importance of garden to plate sustainability for both financial and health factors and teaches the need for food preservation so that locally grown produce can be enjoyed year-round. Erie Community College is planting the seeds for our up-and-coming regional chefs to understand the importance of bringing healthy, locally grown foods to our plates.