Union’s organic vegetable garden
Octopus’s Garden is a grassroots horticultural initiative led by the passion of students and mentors alike to give organically grown produce back to the community. Natalie Neal and Olivier Bouchard (both ’08),
sought to develop an on-campus café, a place where students and community members could dine on fresh, locally sourced, organic meals. This concept later developed into the Ozone Café, which now serves
hundreds of members of the Union community every Friday. In its flourishing years since 2008, produce from Octopus’s Garden has been donated to Ozone Café, Campus Kitchens, and the Schenectady City
While many people contributed to the birth of Octopus’s Garden, the essential help in getting seeds into the ground came from Connie Schmitz, Union’s landscape specialist. She managed to secure the
garden’s location, an open space on the southeast corner of the campus, between McKean and Wells Houses. The garden thus sits appropriately between the center of the college’s finances and a theme house
devoted to community service.
HISTORY AND GROWTH
Ground was first broke in 2008. At that time, the garden comprised roughly 1500 square feet, less than half its current size. Seeds were purchased with the help of Dining
Services, a support that has continued to the present day. The first crops were beans, tomatoes, carrots, and squash, which produced about 500 lbs of produce. All the crops were and continue to be produced using
organic methods. In 2009, two crucial events took place. The garden more than doubled in size, to 3850 square feet, and its tools and equipment moved into a straw shed built by David Sanders (’09) and funded by
a Presidential Green Grant, one of many the garden has received. That year asparagus, garlic, potatoes, and salad greens were added to the garden’s plantings, and nearly 1000 lbs of produce were produced. In
2010, the garden grew to its present size of 4200 square feet and got its white picket fence façade. A water retention system was put in place in the shed, the water used for everything from irrigation to hand
washing. Production grew to 1301 pounds. 2011 saw a solar lighting system installed in the garden’s shed and an underground irrigation system put in the garden itself. Presidential Green Grants again supported
both projects. Production once more topped 1000 lbs (1245.5, to be exact). The garden produced record crops in both 2012 and 2013, 1432 and 1589 lbs respectively. By now, the garden was focusing on root crops
like potatoes, carrots, and garlic, supplemented by squash and greens. Thus over the years Octopus’s Garden has more than doubled in area and developed a stable and extremely productive crop rotation.
As all the cultivation at Octopus’s Garden is done using organic methods, the production is very labor intensive and depends on numerous volunteers. In the past, groups like athletic teams, Minervas, and clubs
have all joined in, as have many individuals, both experienced gardeners and novices. Octopus’s Garden welcomes any and all volunteers. The garden will continue to provide a space where sustainability minded
volunteers from campus and the local community can come together with direct action. This garden links Union College and capital district organizations including ECOS, City Mission, Schenectady Central Park
Greenhouse, and Schenectady ARC Discovery Academy.
AWARDS AND HONORS
Octopus’s Garden has won six Presidential Green Grants one for each year of its existence. In 2010, the garden’s coordinator, Connie Schmitz, won the Unitas Award for contributions to the campus and community
and in October 2012 was named Kenney Center “Volunteer of the Week.” Perhaps most significantly, Octopus’s Garden was prominently noted when The Princeton Review’s “Guide to Green Colleges” cited Union
as one of the country’s most environmentally responsible colleges.
The creators of Octopus’s Garden first broke soil in 2008 with the mission of consciously growing fresh, organic produce that would go back to the community. Eleven 11 years later, the members of Octopus’s
Garden continue to exemplify organic horticultural practices while engaging in conversations on the importance of locally grown products. We want to engage with our community members by creating a welcoming
environment where people can be involved in the food growing process. We hope to make our community more aware of how and where their food is grown. Our involvement with Union College Dining Services
has been built around the idea of encouraging healthy and delicious food choices. People interested in contributing and getting their hands dirty by helping out, can contact firstname.lastname@example.org.