With his dog patrolling nearby, Nash Leef wipes sweat from his brow, hunkers down and dives into the leaves of a three-plus-foot-tall zucchini plant growing between rows of sweet corn and a hoop house.
“A year ago, this whole area was overgrown and full of weeds,” said Leef, removing armloads of the green squash, each one as long and as big as his forearm. “And, where plants were growing, fruit was rotting on the vine.”
A warm August day nearly a year ago marked the first time Leef volunteered at the University of Nebraska—Lincoln’s Bugeater Farms, a student-led organic garden established in 2012 on East Campus. He was among a handful of students who answered a call to help with harvest and clean up the planting space.
As others left at the end of that day, the then-freshman stayed to pull a few more weeds.
“Most of the group who established the garden had graduated, interest had declined, and it became too much work for the last caretaker of the space, so we came out to help,” Leef said. “It was in pretty rough shape, but you could see the garden had some real potential.
“This garden is an incredible opportunity for undergraduate students to research and experience sustainable farming techniques. I felt an immediate connection to the garden and decided to do everything I could to keep it going.”
Another student who has since left Nebraska to pursue other opportunities continued to assist last fall. She came up with the idea to donate harvested vegetables to the People’s City Mission, which provides meals and housing to Lincoln’s working poor and homeless.
“Everyone jumped on board with that idea as it was a great way to give back to the Lincoln community and make use of the garden produce,” Leef said. “We kept coming out until winter arrived. She would do most of the harvesting and I would do all of the weeding.”
His desire to improve the small plot continued to grow during the winter months. To supplement his limited gardening/farming experience, the Chappell native pored through five books on gardening and advanced farming practices. The singular focus led the environmental studies major to add a second major in agronomy with a research option.
In December, Leef learned about and applied for a grant from the Association of Students of the University of Nebraska Green Fund. Established by a student vote in 2015 and launched in 2016, the fund provides grants for student-led projects designed to improve environmental sustainability on campus. The fund collects a $1 student fee each semester to support projects.
The grant proposal was approved and Leef received $4,263 to fund and grow Bugeater Farms. He used the grant to purchase seeds and supplies to build raised garden beds for the spring planting season.
In his first full season, Leef has expanded the garden beyond the hoop house it grew in a year ago. In the raised beds, he designed spaces with a focus on intercropping techniques. The gardening method pairs plants that provide benefits to one another — from offering shade to returning needed nutrients to the soil — and help enhance growth. He also integrated companion planting, which introduces plants that emit a fragrance or offer an element that repels pests.
Both intercropping and companion planting are methods that help with success in an organic growing operation and eliminate the need for chemical inputs.
This season, crops harvested have ranged from tomatoes and zucchini to bell peppers, carrots and cucumbers. Additional harvests this fall will include sweet corn, peas, beans and lettuce.
As of Aug. 17, the garden has produced nearly 1,500 pounds of produce to People’s City Mission.
“I’ve worked on average 20 to 30 hours a week out here this summer,” Leef said. “And I’ve loved every minute of it.”
Leef said he hopes to manage the garden through his undergraduate career at Nebraska. Future plans for the space include increasing knowledge about the garden, recruiting additional students to assist with the project, continuing to expand the planting area, creating a system that funds the operation through produce sales, and establishing a pollinator garden with perennial plants and native grasses.
“This garden is truly a unique space at the University of Nebraska,” Leef said. “For me, it has provided a true awakening, igniting a passion for agriculture. My ultimate goal is to leave the space better than I found it, hoping that it can continue to inspire students in the future.”
Students interested in helping with Bugeater Farms should contact Leef at firstname.lastname@example.org, or Samuel Wortman, assistant professor of agronomy and horticulture and faculty adviser for the garden, at email@example.com.