Building garden beds and growing community

PSC students thankful for in-person classes during COVID

Max Dentone, a Paul Smith’s College student, runs a saw at the PSC forestry cabin, cutting boards for an accessible garden bed in a class led by Sara Dougherty, on the other end of the board. (Enterprise photo — Aaron Cerbone)

PAUL SMITHS — Paul Smith’s College students are building accessible garden beds for people with limited mobility. They’ve also been building a community of friends who get together to work and talk for four hours once a week, which they say has been a bright spot in a year when interaction has been limited by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Bridget Fajvan, a freshman, said after graduating from high school during the pandemic last year she felt isolated. She had finished classes over Zoom and other than her parents, she saw few people on a regular basis. Paul Smith’s College, unlike many other colleges in the state, has been able to stay open for in-person instruction this year. Sophomore Ethan Johnson said this is because of a “team effort” of students there following rules and keeping the virus mostly at bay.

“To come to school in person … it’s been definitely a lot more welcoming,” Fajvan said.

This class has been especially welcoming, she added, because they’ve been pushed out of their comfort zones and collaborated with each other a lot.

Johnson said working in a large group is challenging — everyone brings different ideas but there is only one final product. But he said it’s also fun. He liked the collaboration and synthesis of ideas that came out of their debate.

Dave Simmons proudly shows off his Popsicle stick mock-up of his class’ garden bed project. “Do you know how hard that was?” he said. Sara Dougherty stands behind him. (Enterprise photo — Aaron Cerbone)

“It’s like a farming, agricultural, Socratic seminar,” Fajvan said. “Not only is it fulfilling a credit for my minor, it’s fulfilling that spot in my life that’s been missing this kind of interaction.”

After weeks of brainstorming, planning and discussion, the class finally made it to the “fun day” on Wednesday — the first construction day. With a warm spring sun beating down, they gathered at the college’s forestry cabin and took turns lifting, cutting and screwing boards into the first of several garden beds.

The class is a collaboration between the college’s draft horse program manger Sara Dougherty and forestry professor Dave Simmons, who also manages John Dillion Park in Long Lake for Paul Smith’s College.

John Dillon Park is a fully accessible park, applying building requirements from the Americans with Disabilities Act to a wilderness area.

Simmons needed a project for his master’s degree at Unity College. Dougherty needed a project for her class during COVID, since they can’t travel to work on other farms. Over breakfast at the Lake Clear Airport last year, Dougherty said they teamed up.

Bridget Fajvan, left, moves boards to be cut for an accessible garden bed her class was building at the PSC forestry cabin. The beds may end up at one of the college’s parks and properties around the area. (Enterprise photo — Aaron Cerbone)

The project they created focuses on “agri-forestry” or forest farming. This involves planting medicinal, herbal, edible and ornamental blooms under the forest canopy, integrating them with the wilderness.

Dougherty wanted to focus on the words in the course title: sustainable community agriculture.

Their project uses local material, builds to last, makes the garden accessible to the whole community, and cultivates native plants to benefit humans and the environment.

Accessible agriculture

Benjamin Benware works on a 60-recipe cookbook for people with different mental and physical abilities, to be used with the food and spices grown in the garden bed his class is building. (Enterprise photo — Aaron Cerbone)

Accessibility, Simmons said, means allowing people who have physical disabilities or who move differently than others to have the same access to agriculture and the wilderness as others.

“And not segregating it to just one area,” Simmons said. “It’s got to be inclusive. That doesn’t mean ‘here’s your spot.’ You put it in right with everything else.”

Students loved this.

“I think it was a really good way of connecting with my classmates and actually finding something with a higher meaning,” Johnson said. “Not just cranking out some silly group project because we have to.”

Paul Smith’s College students stand with their first constructed accessible garden bed after a day of assembly and weeks of learning. (Provided photo — Sara Dougherty)

Johnson, a sophomore sustainability major, moved to the Adirondacks recently and was awed by the “endless” wilderness recreation opportunities here. Endless, at least, for him. He said when he brings friends who have different abilities or are nonathletic, that list of opportunities grows short.

“Everybody should be able to experience outdoor recreation,” Johnson said. “The whole point (of this project) is for people with different abilities to be able to do absolutely anything.”

He said it was hard to find good designs for accessible garden beds already out there, so students had to innovate a lot on their own.

The beds need to be fewer than 34 inches tall and offer 27 inches of legroom so people in wheelchairs can pull up and tend to the plants. Students included ramps, shorter gardens for children and pull-out trays and drawers for accessible storage in their design.

Some of these are features designers might not commonly think of when building a gardening space, but Fajvan said they should be.

“We should be creating environments like this all the time,” Fajvan said. “It should be a given.”

Simmons said he is interested in studying the qualitative benefits of accessible forest gardening over the more quantitative ones.

“There is no literature or scholarship that has been published studying those effects for persons with disabilities having that chance to engage with nature that way,” Simmons said.

Simmons said as far as he knows, there are no other community gardens with this level of accessibility in a forest setting.

The garden beds will be placed in a few possible locations owned by PSC — John Dillon Park, Osgood Farm and the Visitor Interpretive Center. He said once the gardens are ready they’ll be looking for gardeners to grow crops, and that people interested should contact Martha Van der Voort at the VIC.

The beds will host shade-tolerant plants — basil, lavender, cilantro, ginseng, goldenseal and black cohosh, root vegetables and decorative pollinators.

Cooking for inclusion

Dougherty said the class also brought in a diverse range of students in majors not usually enrolled in forestry or agriculture classes.

Benjamin Benware and Kelly Brewer are pastry arts majors but found a way to use their skills to supplement the garden project.

They are producing a 60-recipe campfire cookbook for people with different mental and physical needs. Benware said they plan to publish it for campers at John Dillon Park.

Sixty might seem like a lot of recipes, but Benware enjoys a good challenge.

They weren’t assigned to do this. Brewer came up with the idea and they both took it on because they wanted to.

For Benware, this combines two things he loves: camping and cooking. He brought a personal collection of camping recipes he already had and modified them to be inclusive.

Half of the recipes are vegetarian. Many are designed to be cooked in one container — tin foil or dutch oven style — so people with limited mobility can cook independently. Some recipes are for people on the autism spectrum, who often have strong preferences in what foods are comfortable or uncomfortable to eat.

Benware says he has a personal understanding of this because his brother has autism.

Students said they hope this project continues in future years. So did the instructors.

“This has been even a learning opportunity for me as the instructor — just an all-around wholesome experience,” Dougherty said.


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