New rainwater collection shelter to provide irrigation for OPIRG organic garden
BY LORI BONA HUNT
There's been plenty of rain this month, but you won't hear U of G fine art graduate Emily Nixon complaining. It's been just what she needed to test the new rainwater collection shelter she designed and built for the Ontario Public Research Interest Group (OPIRG) organic garden at the north end of campus. It's a wooden structure with a fibreglass roof and a gutter that allows water to funnel down into a rain barrel. She hopes it will help collect enough rainwater to supply a summer's worth of irrigation for the garden.
Tucked away in a small ravine between Lambton Hall and a parking lot, the garden is barely visible from College Avenue. In this secret garden, OPIRG volunteers grow herbs, vegetables and berries while trying to accommodate and attract local fauna. The garden doubles as a working classroom where students and the community learn how to create and sustain an organic garden.
Nixon, who has served as garden co-ordinator for the past two years, says the garden was designed in keeping with the “permaculture philosophy.” That means the gardener works with the conditions at hand, making optimal use of the natural resources, land and space.
But given the location of the OPIRG garden — in the middle of a field with no water supply and daylong sunshine — following the permaculture philosophy has been a challenge. It means getting by with little irrigation and virtually no shade.
“Needless to say, we have a lot of drought-resistant plants,” Nixon says with a laugh.
To irrigate the garden, she's had to depend on rainfall and the generosity of the U of G Grounds crew, who top up her free-standing rain barrels now and then.
The garden has been getting by, even thriving at times, but Nixon wanted to make watering a little easier and more manageable for the new garden co-ordinator, U of G English student Brendan Arnott. So, with some advice from Chris Pickard in Physical Resources, she came up with the design for the rainwater collection shelter. It was made to be collapsible and will come down each fall and go up again in the spring.
In addition to collecting water, the shelter will provide some vertical growing space for plants and some much-needed shelter from the hot sun for volunteers or community members visiting the garden.
OPIRG created the plot in 1997 as a demonstration garden and relies mostly on volunteers to keep it going. That has presented some challenges over the years, but Nixon now has a committed core of volunteers.
“People come when they want and when they can and it's non-hierarchical,” she says. “All the volunteers share their knowledge, so it feels like a learning environment as opposed to a work environment. The hope is that we teach people to do this type of gardening and that they take that information away with them and later use it in creating their own gardens.”
Nixon designed the garden so that plants are arranged in a way that allows them to benefit from one another. She also took into consideration the best way to attract pollinating insects and ensure a diverse collection of insects so there are prey-predator relationships and no one bug becomes too overpowering. In addition, plants and mulching are used to help capture natural fertilizers.
“It really has evolved into something special,” she says.
Last summer, the garden produced so many vegetables, herbs and berries that OPIRG was able to donate a lot of produce to the downtown Change Now Youth Drop-In and Resource Centre. There are also plans to work with the Central Student Association to make donations to its food bank.
Besides producing food and educating the public, the garden has proven to be a great stress reliever for students, says Nixon.
“We have a lot of master's and PhD students come out who are frustrated because they've been indoors studying and they just want to come outside and pull some weeds.”
Arnott, who officially took over for Nixon this month and has had a longtime interest in gardening, says he is both “excited and terrified” about his new job as garden co-ordinator.
“There is so much potential, both in terms of having an amazing yield and in terms of community involvement, but it's also a bit daunting,” he says.
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