LSU student Benjamin Pierrotti wants to be an entrepreneur. But when the chance came to have his own little garden, he couldn’t wait to get his hands in the dirt.
Neither could about two dozen other students who are now harvesting vegetables from small plots right in the heart of the campus.
That delights the staff at LSU’s tiny Hill Farm.
Now only a sliver of what was once a 40-acre research facility, Hill Farm used a Student Government grant to provide raised garden beds and invited students to grow their own vegetables and herbs starting this semester.
The 20 beds were quickly snapped up, and two more have been added.
“In today’s society, especially in the city, people don’t get enough out in nature,” said Pierrotti, a sophomore from Lafayette, as he showed off his plot of kale, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and parsley. “This was a way I could get out.”
Pierrotti learned about the gardening opportunity because he took an agronomy elective taught by Katherine “Kiki” Fontenot, an associate professor in the LSU AgCenter School of Plant, Environmental and Soil Sciences. Fontenot came up with the idea for the garden and oversees it along with professor Ed Bush. The two of them set up the beds, including soil and drip irrigation, and provided plants or seeds for planting in early October.
Students can go to the garden 24 hours a day. For some, that means night visits to weed, fertilize and harvest because that’s the only time they have available.
The students can continue gardening in their spots as long as they are registered LSU students and keep their gardens tidy. New students will be invited to grab a plot as the current gardeners drop out or if the project receives funding to expand, Fontenot said.
The LSU Horticulture Club has two beds to grow food as well as plants to attract bees for pollination. An education professor has beds to show future teachers how to use gardens as lessons.
Evan and Mollie Davies, married graduate students in entomology, come three days a week, usually on their lunch breaks to tend their plants. They live in an apartment, so having their own garden would otherwise be impossible.
“It’s nice to grow fresh produce, work with your hands, dig with your hands,” said Evan Davies, who grows green beans, lavender, broccoli, cabbage, kale, oak leaf lettuce, carrots and dill. “It’s something else to do to get your mind off school.”
“Graduate school can be a little bit demanding,” Mollie Davies added. “We’re going to graduate in May, so we have a lot of experiments to do, a lot of stuff going on. This is nice. It’s an experiment of its own, but it’s nice to take your mind off of that (class work).”
The couple and others who garden can pop in midday because, though it’s mostly hidden from roadways, Hill Farm is close by. Just behind the Lod Cook Hotel, the location has been a blessing and a curse.
Its connection to LSU’s agricultural mission began when the campus moved to its current site in the 1920s. When a swamp was dredged to form University Lake in 1930, that material was added to the land, creating research space that stretched from Highland Road to the lake.
But in the 1960s as the campus grew, large tracks of the farm were given to the university for fraternity and sorority houses. In the following decades, more of the land was taken to build the LSU Systems Building, Recreation Sports Complex and the Lod Cook Conference Center and Hotel. The remaining land has been devoted to horticulture education.
“All of this is teaching. That’s the best part,” Bush said. “It’s horticulture awareness for the future.”
“Selfishly," Fontenot added, "the point also for Ed and I, maybe … we can get some of these kids to take a horticulture class or consider this as a career path. When legislation comes up and they’re adults and they’re lawyers or doctors or teachers and they hear something about agriculture, they understand the importance of it to themselves, so maybe they vote in favor of it.”
The students who garden, all from various academic majors, have bonded over their shared interest, and held a dinner in the garden on Nov. 11. Fontenot and Bush provided entrees, and the students brought side dishes, some made from the vegetables and herbs they are growing.
Some of the students see a long-term benefit for the garden.
“In the future when I have my own home, if I would like to grow these instead of going to the store, I can,” Pierrotti said. “It also teaches my kids. … It gets you out of the classroom and gets you in enjoyable touch with nature.”