More than flowers and food, campus garden grows community

By mid-February, winter’s freezing temperatures and drab landscapes can seem like they will last forever. But for at least one staff member at Penn, spring’s verdant bounty is never far from her mind.

Lila Bhide is the coordinator of the Penn Student Garden, which occupies an area behind Rodin College House, just off Locust Walk. With a background in urban agriculture and environmental studies, she joined Facilities and Real Estate ServicesSustainability Office last year. Bhide sees the garden not just as a place to grow flowers, fruits, and vegetables, but also as a space for community building.

“The garden is in a transformational period,” she says. “It’s been student-run at different points and now that I am here as a staff manager for the garden, I’ve been working to not only maintain the space to make it feel inviting and catch the attention of passers-by, but also to build a strong garden network and play host to different events.”

The Penn Student Garden was originally funded by a Green Fund grant in 2009. Several raised beds offer room to grow a variety of crops, from berries and peppers to beets and salad greens. The location is shifting this spring to a site near Harrison College House, with better accessibility and sunlight.

Members of the Penn community are welcome to come and pick crops from the garden, as long as they take only what is needed and do not pull up the plant itself.

During the growing season last summer and fall, Bhide held regular work hours so anyone interested could show up and get their hands dirty working in the garden beds. She also arranged an open mic night over the summer for community members to perform poetry readings amid the garden flora. In the fall, an outdoor tea party gave participants the opportunity to sip fresh brews crafted using the garden’s herbs.

But even now, in the “off-season,” she is building up a community around the garden. Last month, she led a discussion with the Penn Vegan Society on the intersection of social justice, labor rights, and veganism, complete with vegan snacks. An upcoming series of events with the Penn Women’s Center will explore the role of women in the food movement and self-care through food.

“I have a general interest in what agriculture and gardening can do as a vehicle for sustainability, as well as for other kinds of community-building and learning,” Bhide says. “It’s a unique way to impact so many kinds of issues and develop new skills. Having done some of this work in college, I felt like coming here to Penn, I can help college students do some of these things, particularly young women, people of color, and other people who haven’t been centered in sustainability, to help bring out their voices.”

As Bhide’s attention turns toward spring, she is seeking new partners among campus organizations, as well as ideas for what to grow in the garden, what students want from the space, and how to incorporate the garden into campus life.

“We’re still building out this new incarnation of the garden,” she says. “If people are interested in giving input or helping out, we definitely welcome that and we invite people to come out to the garden and be a part of the growing process.”

Keep up with news from the Penn Student Garden on its blog, Facebook, and Instagram.

Penn Student Garden