Kate Allen’s Secret Garden

See how Kate Allen’s garden grows

By Laura Boyle

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.

A Makeshift Gate
If you duck under the low-hanging branches and walk over a bed of neglected, rotting leaves, you’ll come to a green wire fence, latched with a fraying bungee cord. Walk through the makeshift gate and down a step and you’ll be standing in the middle of a concrete rectangle that’s been covered by about an inch of soil. On the side closest to the shed, encased by cinderblocks, raised off the concrete by newly placed soil and fertilizer, is Kate’s garden.
“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.”
Cinderblock Bed
Allen began her quest for a place for a garden last spring. She brought her idea to the environmental group on campus, known as the Greens. Bolstered by their support, she asked the Civic Engagement Office for funds. Nell Anderson and Ellie Esmond, the co-directors of the office, approved the plan, and pledged Allen $250 to help her get started.
Allen didn’t discover until the start of the school year that her allotted land was concrete covered in an inch of soil. The need to buy extra soil and cinderblocks to create a fertile bed cut into her funds. The Greens had donated $80 dollars to her cause, bringing her grand total to $310. That money couldn’t cover the seeds, tools, soil, and cinderblocks, but Allen, “didn’t want it to be a dead-end project.” She put down $90 s of her own.
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.
The Next Step
The next step was planting. Allen chose vegetables because she wanted something “useful.” Student Anna Lehr Mueser helped her figure out what fit the climate: kale, mustard greens, mesclun greens, spinach, arugula, and garlic. Mueser also suggested a cold-frame to protect the shoots and Allen contrived one of her own making, using dusty old window frames scavenged from the basement of English House.
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.”
Every other day she hooks up the hose and waters what she calls her babies.
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.”