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The Dirt Army

A Little Green at Franklin and Marshall College

The idea itself was simple. Take a boring plot of ordinary grass and turn it in to something more interesting. This is how the entirely student run organic garden came to be, and sparked the interest of the administration and students at Franklin and Marshall College. The result of the new, all organic garden would be grown not only to help the land, but offer the benefits of healthy farming to those who choose to take part in the caring of the land. With several students taking it upon themselves to write up a proposal articulating how they would integrate growing organic vegetables within an overall framework of sustainable food production in Lancaster County, the school administration swiftly approved the idea, funded by Dean Trachte, for the new organic garden. Organic compost was donated by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. So in the Spring of 2009 the garden was underway. The garden itself started off quite simply. In terms of land size it was nothing too remarkable, measuring 40 feet by 40 feet. But success and production would later ensure more land and more focus for the garden to grow. Among some of the Dirt Army’s most active members includes Tyler Plante, Nic Auwaerter, and Kelsey Lerback.

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How the Organic Garden Came to Fruition

The Green initiative in Lancaster, Pennsylvania is getting some local help from Franklin and Marshall College (F&M).  It is here where the Dirt Army resides.  As a sub division of the Environmental Action Alliance, a committee dedicated to Green issues such as recycling and energy matters, the Dirt Army also encompasses many of these shared ideals.  They have fun with the name, referring to certain members as “Commander and Chief” or other ranks, but what in particular does this army do? 

The Dirt Army, or Student Gardening Committee, has dedicated its efforts into growing its own organic farm on the campus of Franklin and Marshall.  Near one of the athletic fields, the entirely student run garden resides on a plot of land that was once 40 by 40 feet.  Since the Spring of 2009 when it was first founded, the garden has grown to 100 by 40 feet.  Some of the crops that are produced include potatoes, onions, lettuce, peppers, beans, and tomatoes, as well as others.  The group is not necessarily concerned with merely the output of vegetables that are grown, but the actual productivity and caring of the land, as well as the healthy lifestyle activity it promotes such as farming and agriculture

The Dirt Army, the name which would later be chosen to represent this new initiative, was created by some handful of students at Franklin and Marshall College. The name sounds like a sort of hardcore eco terrorist organization, but it is obviously nothing of the sorts. The organization itself comes from the other Earth friendly group on the college campus, the Environmental Action Alliance, or EAA for short. The intentions were inspiring and clear from the very start; to create something that improved the land. To emplace on the campus grounds something new and refreshing. Something that was more productive, which made the land more beautiful.

The Environmental Action Alliance is the club where the Dirt Army originally stemmed from. The name “Dirt Army” itself has been described just as a quirky, silly name to go by. A name that was just for fun, and nothing too official. It is basically a name that the students wanted to call themselves to help better represent them, because the Environmental Action Alliance covers such a broad area on campus. The Environmental Action Alliance is associated with many Green operations, including that of the lunches put together during the sustainability weeks held every semester at the college. Differentiating this new undertaking was a point of importance for the creation of the garden and all of those involved. As of now, around a dozen students help run and tend to the garden on a regular basis. Much of the daily activity is dependant on the weather, of course.

What is Grown From the Garden?

The garden produces a whole variety of different organic vegetables. Lettuce and radishes were some of the earliest grown crops to be yielded from the organic garden. Other types of vegetables produced include onions, potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, beans, squash, beets, zucchini and carrots. Along with the lettuce and radishes, the onions and potatoes were some of the earlier grown crops, but these did not really mature until more in the Summer time of harvesting. Also started off in the Spring was eggplant, corn, cucumber, muskmelons.

The amount of vegetables grown is certainly not limited to only one species. For many of the crops, multiple species were used and planted. Tomatoes themselves had upwards of 10 different species growing at one time. The average number of plant species planted was about two different plants per species, and this proved to be a successful scheme for the garden’s output. It was decided to use a plethora of different crop species to make it a polyculture of vegetables. This in turn produces a garden that is technically more diverse, and more like a fully functioning eco system to help function as a healthier unit, ultimately providing a garden that would need to be less controlled.

Keeping with the Theme of Going Green

Certain methods were taken to keep up with the theme of staying environmentally friendly in regards to caring and working on the garden. The soil itself was completely hand tilled. This requires a lot of work, and as attested by one of the garden’s most active members, “[Hand tilling] was pretty tough and a lot of work.” Although there are organic friendly pesticide and fertilizer alternatives, the Dirt Army did not use any such soil amendments to help with growth of their crops. Also, no irrigation methods were used, with the Dirt Army instead opting to water each plant by hand around every other day at least. This tougher labor is more time consuming, but it also ensures that the garden is properly cared for very carefully, and the efforts in keeping the process entirely green and organic are all taken in account. Using human labor to water the garden is less wasteful of water, as you can really focus the water on the plant.

What Happens Once the Crops are Grown?

So, the harvesting is done, the crops are ready to be picked, what comes next for the Dirt Army? Unfortunately this year, none of the crops were sold. Although some time in the near future, the army would very much like to try their hand in selling some of their crops to local markets. As I understand, the plan is in the works on getting something done with at least one local organic market in Lancaster.

As it stands right now, a lot of crops are being donated. Where to? Mostly to events dedicated to Franklin and Marshall, especially to all of those who helped to get the organic garden going and gave valuable advice on how to make the garden healthy and functioning. The Fair Trade Café, the lunch that the Environmental Action Alliance hosts every Wednesday also reaps the rewards from all of the crops that are picked from the garden. Some of the crops are also stored, like much of the potatoes and onions.

 And of course, whatever is grown is consumed by the Dirt Army itself. There is something very rewarding about eating something that was just grown that you happened to hand pick yourself, only hours before it was sitting on your plate. Being able to eat what they had grown was described as a really wonderful experience.


How Does the Dirt Army Contribute to a Green Lancaster?

It is all about modesty for the Dirt Army. When asked how the organization plays a role in the Green Lancaster movement, I was told it is not really about a big “movement.” It is about making a small contribution to healthier life choices, and engaging in healthier activities. If the army can change just one person’s opinion on organic farming, than they have done something successful in their minds. The output of crops is not what the most important measurement of success is here. But since last Spring, the garden has grown from 40 by 40 feet, to 100 by 40 feet. Clearly something is working out. It is overall, the simple nod to a healthier lifestyle, an emphasis on being less dependant of others, and the promotion of farming and agriculture. Hopefully, throughout the process, the Dirt Army has planted the seed of interest in others to one day start their own endeavor in organic gardening. All of these things combine to make the organic garden created by the Dirt Army a small but important piece of the Green initiative in Lancaster County.

“I would like to think that our garden is just a small contribution to not a revolution, not a movement, but just something that people can look at and say ‘Hey they’re doing it and they are just a bunch of Franklin and Marshall students. If they can do it maybe I can have a garden in my backyard and grow some plots.’ It doesn’t have to be complete subsistence, but instead of buying tomatoes or peppers thousands of miles away, I can grow it in my own backyard. I want people to understand that it is about the little things. And it’s not about changing the world. It’s about changing a couple peoples’ minds.

You Can Help Volunteer

The Dirt Army or any environmentally friendly organization on Franklin and Marshall is always looking for help and volunteers. Gardening is hard work, and the help is always greatly appreciated. Volunteer days for the garden are usually held on Saturday. Franklin and Marshall College is located at 415 Harrisburg Avenue, Lancaster, Pa. Or, you can help by creating your own little organic garden, after all.


Getting Started On Your Own Garden

Now that you have learned some basic definitions that involve gardening, you can start to take the first steps to growing. In order to get your garden started, you must first prepare the soil. Properly conditioning your soil is important. Healthy soil enables that your plants acquire a good source of nutrients needed for growth. One advantage of using natural treatment of the soil is that you do not have to worry about chemical soil treatments seeping into the food or harming worms or beneficial bacteria. Check the pH levels of your soil by purchasing a home testing kit for cheap. It is usually best to test the pH levels in the fall, and apply any organic nutrients before winter once you have determined your acidic levels.

Use compost.  Compost feeds plants, helps conserve water, and cuts down on weeds. The best type of compost is formed from the right ratio of nitrogen- and carbon-rich organic waste, mixed with soil, water and air. Don’t be put off by what sounds like complicated chemistry. Really, any compost you can gather and use will help your garden. Just remember, you are dealing with simple organic waste. It should be easily attainable, so try it out. To make good compost, add alternating layers of carbon material (this will be brown material), and nitrogen material (this will be green). Put a thin layer of soil in between to mix. Have about six inches of more soil at the top of your pile, and water to keep it down to keep it slightly moist. Within two months, you will have fresh compost. Healthy compost should not smell either. Remember to turn it every once in a while.

Select crops that will grow well in your environment. Choosing plants that will be well adjusted to where you live in terms of light, moisture, drainage and soil quality will allow for easier growth. If you can, buy your seeds from local farmer’s markets. Just be sure that no artificial products were used before you make the purchase.

Group your plants tightly together in beds that you will not be walking on. Grouping reduces the need of weeding and reduces water waste as well. Also, it helps you better target specific plants so you know how much compost and nutrients are needed for an area in your garden. Overall grouping helps maintain a level or order in your garden. Easier path maintenance helps lead to healthy soil, also. Ample space between rows helps promote air circulation, which repels fungal attacks.

Know when to water your plants, as well as the appropriate amount of water your crops require. The best time to water plants is usually in the morning, because this is when the weather typically tends to be cooler. There is usually less amount of wind, so you won’t have to be competing with the weather to focus the water on the plant, and the amount of water lost to evaporation is also reduced. If you water in the evening plants stay damp over night, making them more likely to be damaged by fungal and bacterial diseases. So rise and shine is usually the ideal time to give your crops a drink. When you water, you want to aim for the roots more so than the greenery itself. This part of the plant can be more easily damaged.

Most experts recommend substantial, infrequent watering for plants that are already established. This averages out to about one inch of water per week including rain water the plants obtain. One or two applications a week encourages deeper rooting, which promotes stronger plants. Temperature wise, try to use water this is close to air temperature. If you can, collect rain water and save that for the next time you need to water your plants. Saving water is important and another great way at keeping green.

Hand weed your garden. It is more work and time consuming but overall healthier to rid your garden of weeds without using synthetic chemicals. Investing in organic mulch can help reduce the weeds grown in your garden and it also helps protect the soil. Having your garden in a raised bed can make it easier to weed, as you are not bending over as much.

If your plants are getting ravished by pests it may be a sign that your crops are not getting enough light, nutrients or moisture. So check to make sure all the basics required for your crops to be healthy are functioning. A diverse garden helps prevent pests by limiting the amount of one type of plant that certain pests target, so keep that in mind when choosing what to grow. Certain animals are good for your garden to help against predators. Frogs, toads, lizards, birds and bats are all animals that can help clear your garden of nasty pests. Lady bugs are considered a beneficial insect. You might even be able to purchase some at local markets. It might be a good idea to eave a small source of water out to attract friendly predators. Organic weapons include Bacillus thuringiensis which is a naturally occurring bacteria that disrupts the digestion of caterpillars and other leaf-eaters. You can also use horticultural oils, insecticidal soaps and garlic and/or hot pepper sprays to help rid your garden of unwanted pests.

Tilling Your Garden

Tilling the soil will make it easier to work with and the soil itself will support healthy plant growth and water attainment. It is important first to know when you should till your garden first. The best time for tilling dirt is usually in the spring. Before tilling your soil you must wait for two key factors. Your soil must be dry enough and warm enough. If you do not wait for these two things, you may be causing more harm than good to your soil and plants. To simply test if your soil is properly dry enough, pick up a sample and squeeze it in your hand. If the ball of soil in your hand falls apart when poked at, the soil probably dry enough. If the ball of soil does not begin to crumble, the soil is still too wet for tilling. To test if your soil is warm enough, stick your hand or a finger a few inches down into the soil. You should be able to comfortably keep you fingers in the soil without getting too cold. You can also simply measure the soil temperature. You need the soil to be at least 60F before tilling and planting.

Once you have determined the proper time to till your garden, begin to start tilling the dirt. Mark out all the areas where you will be tilling your soil. Start at one end of the marked area where you will begin to mix and dig through the dirt around. Be sure to only go across the soil one row at a time. It is important to work slowly and not to rush the tilling process. You will only be tilling the dirt in each row one time, so you will not have to go back over any already tilled soil. Excessive tilling can compact the soil rather than break it up, which is the opposite of what you want out of tilling the soil.


Compare Your Organic Garden to the USDA

The United States Department of Agriculture determines the certain degree to how organic the farming process is. In order for farmers who want to sell their crops under the condition of organic, the United States Department of Agriculture must officially certify that the produce is indeed organic. Certified “100% Organic” under the USDA means that all of the ingredients have been grown to organic standards. This certification requires 95 to 99% all organic ingredients. Here are the rules noted by the USDA in accordance to what is organic:

- Plants can not be grown with synthetic pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, genetic modification, irradiation or sewage sludge.
- Animals must be raised exclusively on organic feed, have access to the outdoors, and cannot be given antimicrobial drugs or hormones.
- Producers will be inspected to make sure these practices are being followed to the letter.

So if you are ever interested in entering the market for real, study up on the rules and certification requirements. Otherwise, comparing your organic garden and crops to what the USDA determines is organic can be a fun exercise in training and regulation.




This case study was researched and written by Andrew Leone

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