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Bringing Campus Back to Life on Earth Day

On Monday, AU kicked off Campus Beautification Day, a university tradition each April around Earth Day.

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If you’ve been on campus this week, you might have noticed the explosion of color: teal T-shirts, orange forklifts, earth-toned planters, flowers of all colors, and shades of green everywhere. You can also find teams of students, staff, and faculty, wearing gardening gloves and carrying shovels as they plant flower beds east of Kogod, mulch in the amphitheater, and weed in the community garden near the tennis court.

On Monday, AU kicked off Campus Beautification Day, a university tradition each April around Earth Day. This year’s Campus Beautification “Day” has expanded to four days to ensure that participants can spread out safety while working to enhance the beauty and sustainability of AU’s lush grounds, which are an 84-acre accredited and award-winning arboretum.and public garden.

Staff planting behind McCabe HallStaff planting behind McCabe Hall

It’s also a time for community building, notes Mark Feist, Assistant Director of Grounds. The 23-year veteran of AU has been a key part of the evolution of AU’s grounds from simple greenspace to designation as an arboretum. Although AU’s original campus design as a bucolic natural setting was sketched by Frederick Law Olmsted Sr.,the 19th century designer behind New York City's Central Park and the US Capitol grounds, it took until the 1990s for landscape design to begin in earnest — leading to the arboretum designation in 2003.

Two of Feist’s favorite projects are among the most recent and student-focused: the companion garden and the edible garden. The companion garden, between McKinley and the Library, grows plants together for protection and support — a horticultural technique that has been practiced for thousands of years and involves several plant species that benefit each other by growing in the same plot of land. “This year,” Feist explains, “we’re putting in corn, climbing string beans—which will actually climb up the corn—and then below we’re planting squash, which will shade out the weeds.”

The companion garden located in between McKinley and the Library

There’s also an edible garden in front of the School of International Service (SIS). This relatively new concept of gardening features plants that are both ornamental and edible. “In the middle of the garden, you might have a persimmon tree,” Feist points out, “but wouldn’t necessarily know it’s edible. Rhubarb is another plant that has great leaves, and strawberries and blueberries have nice shrubs.”

Plants from the edible garden in front of SIS

Away from the main quad, behind Bender Arena and next to the tennis courts, lies AU’s community garden. There, a group of a few AU students, faculty and staff—who all signed up previously to respect safety and distancing guidelines—could be seen weeding around the space where many plants are growing. “We’re trying to grow carrots, kale, broccoli, arugula, beans, cilantro, thyme, lavender, oregano, and celery,” says Sydney Spencer (SIS ‘23), who played a big part in revamping the community garden after the COVID-19 lockdown.

Sydney Spencer in the community garden in March

The SIS student, whose academic focus is environmental sustainability and global health, has always been interested in agriculture. Coming from a family of prune and walnut farmers in Oregon, she attended a middle school that was focused on ecology and sustainable living. Each classroom had its own garden bed, and the students even performed a mock Iron Chef and presented cooked meals from food they had grown to their teachers. “I have always liked the idea of using tools at my doorstep to make food and share with the community,” says Spencer.

Students and faculty weeding in the AU community garden

Last spring, she was looking in the DC area for a garden plot she could tend to, but waitlists were long and the prices high. She decided to dig around AU’s own garden and left a note at the closed gates explaining her interest in joining. In June, Jerri Husch, who has taught sociology at AU, reached out to Spencer and they agreed to rehabilitate the space. “Jerri was a mentor and educated me on gardening, agriculture policy, and social justice through agriculture,” says Spencer.

The pandemic proved to be a hard time for the community garden, but as restrictions were lifted, over a dozen students stepped forward to help. There’s also an Instagram account and newsletter with updates about the garden. Although Husch is no longer involved, Spencer has been keeping the space active. “We have some great plans for the future. We’re currently figuring out the best way to offer the food we grow to the community for free, which might look like collaborating with The Market,” says Spencer about AU’s food pantry for students.

AU Women’s Soccer Team participating in Campus Beautification Day behind Reeves Field (top photo). Hailey Strier (CAS ‘22), Mesgana Afessa (SPA ‘22) and staff behind McCabe Hall (bottom photo).

This year’s Campus Beautification events have been a chance for students to gather, safely, for a good cause and some fun. “Today is my 21st birthday and I wanted to celebrate by coming here,” says Hailey Strier (CAS ‘22), as she stood in line to sign with her roommate Mesgana Afessa (SPA ‘22) to sign up for Campus Beautification Day on the main quad. “I used to garden with my mom and haven’t done so in a while, so this will be fun.” 

As they headed to the plot behind McCabe Hall to plant flowers, students, staff and faculty could be seen all over campus, with their shovels, mulch, gardening gloves, and potted plants, ready to make AU’s gardens grow.


Interested in getting involved with the AU Community Garden or want to subscribe to the newsletter? Contact Sydney Spencer at