Hall County Master Gardeners, including Guy and Annette Hinton, above, have repurposed Brenau University’s teaching garden for food production to support local charities. (Photo courtesy of Don Linke/Hall County Master Gardeners)

Master Gardeners give Brenau garden a new purpose

May 7, 2020
Rudi Kiefer
Hall County Master Gardeners, including Annette Hinton, above, have repurposed Brenau University’s teaching garden for food production to support local charities. (Photo courtesy of Don Linke/Hall County Master Gardeners)

When Brenau University students left campus in late March to finish the spring semester via remote learning, they left behind more than empty classrooms.

Situated near the Lessie Smithgall Tennis Center on the northwest edge of the university’s historic Gainesville campus, a teaching garden — built in 2013 by the Brenau University Garden Society, or BUGS — has served to instruct students about growing organic food and producing ornamental plants without the use of pesticides and other chemicals.

But with recent shelter-in-place measures and no one around to maintain the garden, a seed of doubt was planted: Would a mess of weeds and rotted plants greet students upon their return to campus in the fall?

That’s when the Hall County Master Gardeners stepped in.

After learning of the looming abandonment of fully stocked plant beds and greenhouse plants, Master Gardeners Don Linke, Annette and Guy Hinton, Carolyn Cathey and Patty Webster — who retired in 2017 after 34 years of teaching at Brenau — came up with a rescue plan.

“We did a pilot project,” Linke said. “A number of vegetables were ready for harvesting, so we gathered them up, and the Hintons donated them to the Good News at Noon homeless mission. The food was received gratefully, so we decided to convert the garden into a food-production facility for the summer and give all the products to local charities.”

With special permission from Brenau Provost Jim Eck, the Master Gardeners — who have a long history of providing instruction and workshops for BUGS students — have now started to grow food on an expanded scale.

The Hintons tilled the soil and planted sweet potato slips and bell peppers. They also planted a young raspberry bush they discovered in the greenhouse. Webster worked at transplanting pansies to make room for hot pepper plants from the greenhouse that the students had grown from seeds. She then transplanted the hot pepper plants and helped to plant bean seeds. Linke moved tomato plants started in the greenhouse to the outside beds. Next came squash, cucumber and zucchini, as well as starter seeds for okra.

“I’m so excited that they’re willing to offer their help to keep the garden productive and provide such a service to the community,” said Jessi Shrout, chair of the Math & Science Department that oversees the garden.

Since 2013, the facility has grown from a single greenhouse to a 4,000-square-foot facility, run by the BUGS club that accepts students of all majors.

“The initial purpose was to teach good practices of sustainability,” said Rudi Kiefer, professor of physical science and BUGS faculty advisor. “But the students soon added a charitable purpose to the club charter. This volunteer action by the Master Gardeners is not only rescuing the university garden, it also makes a difference in the lives of those in need during this extraordinary period of American history.”

With garden production well under way, homeless and other individuals in need will soon see their meals enriched by organically grown, healthy vegetables from Brenau’s campus.

“I’m excited and grateful to see the garden is still growing while students can’t be on campus,” said BUGS president Aisa Goforth, a senior interior design major and graphic design intern in Brenau’s Office of Marketing & Communications.

“The new role of the garden makes me proud to be a part of an organization so caring about our community, and I can’t wait for everyone to get back to campus so we can enjoy helping each other and the community together.”