It’s a clear, bright morning on Nebraska’s East Campus, and the Backyard Farmer Garden is already buzzing with activity.
A visitor strolls along a garden path, reading about the different plant species grown in the area. Butterflies and bees flit through the air. Later in the afternoon, school groups will tour the grounds, learning about how produce makes it from farm-to-table.
Ann Powers can’t help but smile when she looks over the community space. She took over as primary caretaker of the garden in May, and the gig has quickly became a labor of love.
Giving people an opportunity to connect with the outdoors, she says, is one of the best parts of her new job.
“I think it’s great for this East Campus neighborhood. People love it. It’s like a giant park in the middle of the city,” Powers said. “It’s here for rest and relaxation, and it’s free.”
Powers, research technician in the Department of Agronomy and Horticulture and graduate student in applied sciences, took the Backyard Farmer Garden job after a decade of working with Landscape Services.
Having previously received a bachelor’s degree in elementary education from Nebraska, Powers says she found inspiration for her current role after conversations with assistant extension educator Terri James and associate professor of agronomy and horticulture Kim Todd.
“I talked to them before I went back to school, and it took this route of public gardens, and how you pair gardening and education and spread that,” Powers said. “I really liked that idea.”
Powers gets to East Campus at 6 a.m. each day to complete the majority of her gardening work before it gets too hot. Depending on the day, her duties include spreading mulch, deadheading, watering, weeding and working on compost bins.
Along with tending to perennials and annuals, Powers takes care of the garden’s produce, which includes beans, peas, kale, chard, tomatoes and squash. In June and July, through a partnership with local nonprofit Produce From the Heart, 527 pounds of it was donated to food banks across Lincoln.
Looking after all that produce, she says, also comes with some tasty perks.
“I’ve definitely eaten more tomatoes this summer than I have in my whole life,” Powers said with a laugh.
Powers is particularly proud of the fact that she’s used no pesticides on the garden this summer. Without chemicals, the area is more inhabitable to insects.
“I haven’t sprayed anything since I’ve been here. I have this tiny space, and I literally hand-weed the lawn,” she said. “This department has a high interest in creating spaces for pollinators and creating spaces for all insects, and using pesticides is just harmful to that goal.”
In the afternoons, after her most of her gardening work is done, Powers spends time answering questions from visitors and leading tour groups. She also works with volunteers, called Master Gardeners, who play a big part in keeping the garden beautiful.
As well as being a resource for the entire city of Lincoln, Powers says, the Backyard Farmer Garden serves as a research and educational opportunity for members of the university community. Students use it as a lab during the school year as a hands-on addition to their classwork, and this summer, a unique bee nest Powers discovered made its way over to Nebraska’s Bee Lab to be studied.
Powers is also keeping busy with a variety of other side projects — including designing the current R Street renovation and using GIS to map out other garden spaces on East Campus.
“It’s something I’m really interested in, and it allows me to be creative in the way that I want to be,” she said. “I’m excited to see what the future holds.”
Located east of the Nebraska East Union, the Backyard Farmer Garden is free and open to the public. Learn about Nebraska’s other East Campus gardens here.