The new Monroe Park Campus Learning Garden supports the Center for High Blood Pressure and VCU’s RamPantry one tomato at a time
It could have just been a few parking spaces. Instead, a townhouse-sized lot tucked behind the West Cary Street Parking Deck at Virginia Commonwealth University houses a new garden that grows food for students and community members in need.
“Because of its location there are a lot of people walking by, and I get the opportunity to talk to people all the time,” said Hannah Wittwer, learning garden coordinator in the Office of Sustainability and resident farmer-in-chief.
At around 1,500 square feet, the Monroe Park Campus Learning Garden was laid out to maximize productivity and soak up the sun. As July approaches, crops are sprouting from eight wooden raised beds, vertical planters, old whiskey barrels and dozens of large coffee bags.
Produce from the garden goes to RamPantry, a food pantry for VCU students, faculty and staff in need, and the nearby Center for High Blood Pressure, a free clinic serving uninsured Richmond residents. Wittwer said she aims to grow and donate 800 pounds of food this year.
“The garden doesn’t have a fence around it intentionally, so people will feel more welcome to come in and explore,” said Erin Stanforth, director of sustainability.
This lush, green scene was quite different just a year ago. Originally purchased as part of a parking project, the space was gifted to the Office of Sustainability from VCU Parking and Transportation.
“We did a survey in 2014 at our annual flagship event, Campus Sustainability Day, and we asked students from freshmen to seniors if they would be interested in an on-campus learning garden,” Stanforth said. “Overwhelmingly the response was ‘Yes.’ Coupled with RamPantry’s lack of access to fresh produce, we decided to see if we could create a learning garden on the site.”
Sustainability applied for a grant from the Council for Community Engagement and received a stipend for the project last summer. That, combined with office funds, allowed the site to be graded and piped for water, and also allowed for the addition of an accessible parking spot.
Wittwer brought years of agricultural experience to the role when she joined VCU in January. But gardening between a four-story parking deck and a privately owned apartment building presented new tests.
“My background in rural agriculture made it feel more challenging. Rural farms are typically wide open space,” Wittwer said. She reached out to local gardeners at places such as Tricycle Gardens and the Sacred Heart Community Center, finding “an enormous amount of support from local gardeners.”