The arid Arizona desert is not the easiest place to cultivate a flourishing organic garden filled with fruits and vegetables. But when the University of Arizona partnered with the Rincon Heights Neighborhood Association in the summer of 2012, just such a garden sprang to life.
The Rincon Heights Community Garden serves as a place for neighborhood residents to grow all-organic fruits and vegetables for their families while giving UA students a hands-on opportunity to study and learn about nature, nutrition, agriculture, insects and landscape design.
"Our garden's mission is threefold," said Melody Peters, coordinator for the Rincon Heights Community Garden. "Our social mission is to promote the health and well-being of those who live, work or go to school nearby. Our educational mission includes providing organic gardening information to our gardeners and our visitors. Our sustainability mission includes the practice, research and experimentation in organic and sustainable desert gardening methods."
In pursuing those aims, the garden is also growing a stronger partnership between campus and one of its closest neighbors.
"There's this feeling that the neighborhood is right next to this big university and sometimes falls in its shadow. Building a bridge between the two is important as so many residents in the neighborhood are students, employees and alumni of the University," said Heidi Hopkins, program coordinator in the UA School of Sociology and a former resident of the Rincon Heights neighborhood.
Hopkins was the project manager on a 2013 UA Green Fund grant that gave the community garden its initial support. She, along with other neighborhood residents, worked with the UA Office of Community Relations to develop the UA partnership.
UA Green Fund grants are awarded each year to projects that help to make the UA a more sustainable place to live, work and learn.
"When I lived in Rincon Heights, I wasn't just a neighborhood resident, I was also a student at the time and a UA employee so I felt very strongly about having a partnership," Hopkins said. Her husband was a UA student in the Masters in Public Administration program at the time, and helped write the initial grant proposal.
Now, the UA and Rincon Heights share the 1/3-acre garden at Eight Street between Fremont Avenue and Park Avenue south of the UA campus. The garden has 18 plots in cultivation and 18 more soon to be available for rent to neighborhood residents. A $10 monthly fee covers automated watering of the plots, so that residents don't have to worry about their crops wilting in the desert sun while they're at work or school.
Besides being a garden, the plot of land also serves as a laboratory for UA students studying nutrition, landscape architecture, entomology and ecology and evolutionary biology.
"Fortunately our garden has attracted talented UA student members, who have helped us develop our master plan through their successful grant applications to the UA Green Fund," said Melody Peters, current coordinator for the Rincon Heights Community Garden.
"Seeing the varied types of students involved is great," Hopkins said, adding that it aligns with UA President Ann Weaver Hart's 100 percent student engagement initiative, which calls for all students to get real-world experience in their fields before they graduate. "This is a chance we have to give students a lab space close to campus to learn about gardening, bugs, entomology and much more."
The Rincon Heights Community Garden project has received a second UA Green Fund grant this year, which will be used to develop an herb and pollinator garden under the direction of project manager Heather Gillette, a UA undergraduate studying ecology and evolutionary biology.
"I envision a space where habitats are available for native pollinating insects and native plants and where citizen-scientists, school-children and UA students can interact with them and learn about this wonderful ecosystem that we live in,” Gillette said.
"This new component will draw in and support local pollinators while also boosting the aesthetic appeal of the garden," Peters said. "Additionally, the herb and pollinator garden is intended to serve as an outdoor classroom, research lab, and a venue for entomology events."
Gillette said that community outreach and education are important aspects of the garden for her.
That’s also true for Kara Welch, who just completed her master's in the UA entomology program. In 2013, she and fellow entomology graduate student Robert Orpet hosted community entomology seminars to teach nearby residents and children about the types of insects that live in the garden, which ones are pests and which ones are good for the native plants.
Welch enjoyed the community outreach aspect of the garden project so much that it prompted her to join the Peace Corps. "I wanted to do more of the type of community outreach that I did at the Rincon Heights garden," she said.
"I'd like to see everyone's goals married so everyone can come out of the garden project having accomplished something that they felt a personal investment in," Gillette said. She plans to finish a doctorate and continue studying pollinators and flowering plants.
"The community garden is a really cool project to work on together as students because you build something, and it's there and growing and continuing to grow after you move on," she said.