See how Kate Allen’s garden grows
Kate Allen likes getting dirty.
That’s how the petite, soft-spoken student at Bryn Mawr College sums up her motivations for starting a vegetable garden on campus.
She digs her pale fingers into the soil, plucks a leaf away from the delicate green shoot that she hopes will one day become a hearty head of mustard greens. She gestures while she speaks, pushing her floppy bangs out of her eyes, and it’s not surprising that at the end of the interview, a smear of fresh, black dirt marks her forehead.
You could meet the student-turned-gardener yourself, but that’s assuming you could find the garden. A broken patch of ground would seem hard to miss on this pristine, suburban campus, where barely a leaf disgraces the cultivated grass.
Kate’s garden, however, lies tucked in a far corner, hidden by trees, concealed behind a falling-down stone shed. The shed slumps adjacent to the home of the English department, the English House, across the street from the main campus.
“I just really wanted to garden.” Allen sits on the edge of the stacked cinderblocks, dragging her sandaled foot through the soil. She’s wearing no jacket, and her toes and cheeks are red from the cold. The blustery October day doesn’t seem to faze her, despite the fact that she hails from the warmer falls of Charlotte, North Carolina.
Allen’s desire to get her hands in the dirt doesn’t exactly reflect her past either. She says her parents were avid gardeners, but that she never joined them outside
“I never did it with them,” she says. Allen became interested in gardening herself as part of a desire, as she puts it, to “live off the grid.” Growing food, to Allen, sustains a disappearing part of modern life: independence. With trademark simplicity, she sums up her reasoning: “It makes me feel not stupid.”
She also sent out emails to the student list-serve and posted flyers around campus. Each flyer had a plaintive message from Gandhi: “To forget how to dig the earth and tend the soil is to forget ourselves.”
Five students showed up on the garden construction day. Allen, in a voice equally gentle and ironic, says more students would have gotten in the way. The students shoveled soil into the rectangle they made of cinderblocks.
It’s a few weeks later and Allen’s planning has yielded tender green spokes in the dark soil. Still, she worries. She wants the garden to be a legacy, something that future students will preserve and protect. She wants lettuce from the garden to find its way to a dining hall. So she collects orange rinds in her room for compost, and grows potted lettuce on her windowsills, “just in case.”
Allen tries to explain why she has put so much effort, both time and money, into growing something she could walk into any dining hall or grocery store to get. She tries to put words to the crazy desire to grow green things from concrete. At last, she sighs. “This is life,” she says. “This is earth and how it works.”