Professor Mark Brunnel, biological sciences, and Isabel Kwon '16, are hard at work in Robb Garden.

  • Print
Campus Life

Education, community, in bloom at Pacific's Robb Garden

Pacific's Robb Garden, now in its second season, continues to be a valued community and campus resource.
Aug 18, 2014

Isabel Kwon focused on the tomato plant in front of her. With precision, she pulled the red, ripened orbs from the tangle of vines, leaving some for next week's harvest and gently setting aside those that have ripened too quickly. She then placed a select few in a small crate to be weighed, recorded and packed for donation.

It's not exactly how the pre-dentistry major at University of the Pacific planned to spend her summer.

"This is my first time working in a garden like this," said Kwon, who is working in Pacific's Ted and Chris Robb Garden as part of an undergraduate research course taught by professor of biology and the garden's faculty advisor Mark Brunell. "Going into dentistry, I've never really had the chance to do this kind of work. It's nothing like I expected it to be."

Kwon is part of a team of Pacific students, faculty, staff and community volunteers who have been working away in the Robb Garden for the past several months tending to tomatoes, leafy vegetables, squash, sunflowers and more. While much of the food produced by the garden during the summer has been donated to community causes, including Saint Mary's Dining Room and the Boggs Tract Community Center, the public now has a chance to pick up locally grown produce on Wednesday evenings throughout August at Pacific's Robb Garden Days.

Held 4-6 p.m. each Wednesday in August at the Ted and Chris Robb Garden on the south part of the campus, the events feature cooking demonstrations, gardening tips, tastings and fresh produce for sale. Other community vendors, including the Stockton Blooms seed lending library, Boggs Tract Community Farm and Marianne's Pantry will be on site, as well. Admission to Robb Garden Days is free.

"Food connects to all of us, culturally, in many different ways," said Shanna Eller, director of sustainability at University of the Pacific. "There are many traditions and ways of preparing food, and the business, policy and production of food continues to influence how people eat, and how those food traditions evolve. I hope we start to influence how people see food and how they interact with food."

The Ted and Chris Robb Garden was established in 2012 from a gift given to the university by Walter Robb, university regent and co-CEO of Whole Foods. The garden was named in honor of sons, alumni Ted '02 and Chris '06, and has become a popular destination for members of the campus and Stockton communities.

"It's amazing what Pacific is doing in regards to sustainability, especially with the garden," said Kendra Bruno, SIS '09, who serves as sustainability coordinator for Sustaining Pacific, the University's office of environmental sustainability and stewardship. "Seeing students learn more about where their food comes from, and engaging in the social, political and economic issues that surround food systems, is really rewarding."

Robb Garden serves almost as many purposes as there are varieties of sunflowers growing along its borders. For students, the garden is a living laboratory where they have the opportunity to study ecosystems, food systems, soil composition, nutrition, seasonality, crop rotations, food disposal, marketing and garden design. For pre-dentistry students like Kwon, there are other, unexpected benefits to working in Robb Garden.

"For pre-dentistry students, this is a perfect way to develop motor skills," said Brunell. "Students may think they come to the garden to be outside or to learn about various plants, but in the process of planting seeds, picking pests off of a leaf, weighing produce, and harvesting fragile crops, they are building up the same motor skills that they will use in their work as dentists."

Not all of the work is done in the soil, however. There are plenty of quizzes, tests and assessment tools to ensure that students are developing critical thinking and analysis skills, as well as their green thumbs. And what is planted in the garden isn't just a matter of happenstance. The students use Robb Garden as a testing ground to determine exactly what types of crops flourish best in Stockton.  

"It's a source of knowledge that is very localized," said Brunell, who has more than 100 varieties of fruits, vegetables and flowers now planted in Robb Garden. "We really hope to build on that knowledge base, and to make it more easily accessible to the community."

Much of that information can be found online in the Robb Garden Facebook group, where Brunell and his fellow gardeners regularly post logs of the garden's harvest. Just as the garden team is committed to making the collected knowledge widely accesible, they are also determined to spread the garden's harvest throughout the community. Some of the produce goes to farmers markets on campus throughout the academic year and to the campus dining hall kitchens, where it turns up in daily meal offerings. Much of the food from the summer months goes to local food pantries and service agencies, and the harvest is available to members of the community each Wednesday in August.

For Stesha Kahan '14, who graduated in May with a BA in music performance and is currently the Robb Garden Coordinator, the garden's influence has already been felt.  "It changed my awareness not just of how I live, but how to live sustainably," said Kahan, who was an active leader in Pacific's Garden Club and participated in a summer internship at the prestigious Ecology Action campus in Willits. "Being a part of the garden was a perfect outlet for my energy outside of the classroom."

And for current students like Kwon, working in Robb Garden continues to be a transformative experience, often in ways they cannot foresee.

"I really had no idea that there were this many kinds of tomatoes," said Kwon, with a laugh.