Cather garden redefines good, fresh, local

· 4 min read

Cather garden redefines good, fresh, local

Megan Thomazin waters the Willa Cather Dining Center garden. University housing employees use the first-year space to grow fresh vegetables and herbs that are served in the dining facility.
Troy Fedderson | University Communication
Megan Thomazin waters the Willa Cather Dining Center garden. University housing employees use the first-year space to grow fresh vegetables and herbs that are served in the dining facility.

On average, produce consumed nationwide travels 1,500 miles from farm to plate.

An employee-run garden at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln is trimming that average down to a handful of yards, providing fresh-from-the-vine veggies and herbs in the Willa Cather Dining Center.

“This is our first year working in our garden and it’s proving to be a great space,” said Joel Fogerty, manager of the Cather Dining Center. “It’s not providing a ton of produce, but it’s enough that we can use to supplement what we offer on the salad bar and the herbs we use in our prepared dishes.”

The garden, which is located just outside the employee entrance to the Cather Dining Center, took root four years ago from a suggestion made by an employee. At that time, university leaders were starting plans for the new dining center and employees were asked what options they would like to integrate into the design.

A custodian dropped a seed of an idea into the conversation — mentioning how cool it would be to have greenhouses on the roof to grow herbs and vegetables.

“We thought it was an awesome idea and took it to the architects and the group planning committee,” Fogerty said. “Unfortunately, due to costs, it wasn’t possible. But we decided to see if there could be some space available on the ground.”

As it turned out, landscape services leaders were excited to partner with the dining hall employees’ request. A small square plot, about 18-feet across each side, was identified and prepared for garden space on the east side of the Cather Dining Center.

The space is enclosed by a fence to keep out pedestrian traffic and some animals, while also protecting the space from nearby vehicle traffic. Landscape services employees also tapped into irrigation lines to supply water to the site and provide wood chips and mulch as needed.

“Landscape services has really been a tremendous partner on this project,” Fogerty said. “Their assistance is really what helped make this be a success.”

Pea pods wait to be harvested in the Willa Cather Dining Center garden. The space is the second small garden being used to supplement meal preparation in university dining centers.

Cather Dining Service employees began maintaining the space in early spring, working the soil, establishing pathways, planting seeds/plants and maintaining a compost bin (using refuse from meal prep).

“It’s been a labor of love for all of us,” said Megan Thomazin, a team leader temporarily assigned to Cather Dining Center while the Massengale Dining Center is remodeled. “It’s been rewarding going out and maintaining the garden this summer, making sure everything is watered and harvesting items to be served to students, employees and visitors.”

Items growing in the garden include peas, beans, cucumbers, tomatoes, bell peppers, a variety of hot peppers, squash, radishes and different herbs.

Along with supplementing items in meals and on the salad bar, the garden has proven effective at generating camaraderie between dining center employees and starting conversations with students.

“When we talk about how items in a particular dish came from the garden it often leads to some really great conversations with students,” said Dave Nockai, a dining service associate. “It helps others realize that we are not just a cafeteria, we’re a from-scratch kitchen.”

The Cather Dining Center garden is a second for University Housing’s dining division, joining a similar planting area at Harper Dining Service.

Success this season has the crew looking ahead and possibly expanding the garden offerings next year. It’s also spurred staff from the Massengale Dining Center planning a garden for the East Campus facility.

“We definitely have plans to do something similar on East Campus next year,” Thomazin said. “Going out and working in the garden has been something to look forward to during the day. And, it’s been an amazing experience producing food from farm to table — growing it right outside the back door and preparing it for our students.”

University housing and landscape services employees worked together to plan for the garden while the Willa Cather Dining Center was being planned. This is the first growing season that the garden has been in use.