UA's new outdoor classroom offers food for thought and the plate


Planting a mix of vegetables, herbs and edible flowers at the Culinary Teaching Garden are, from left, Sue Rasor-Greenhalgh, interim director of the School of Family and Consumer Sciences; Phyllis O'Connor, Associate Dean of University Libraries; Evelyn Taylor, director of the Nutrition Center (standing); Sandhya Meduri, a graduate student in the Institute for Teaching and Learning; and Rick Riccardi, coordinator of site design and landscaping.

Sandhya Meduri is a gardening novice — but that didn't stop her from joining a group of campus volunteers to help plant the new Culinary Teaching Garden in the courtyard of Schrank Hall South in early June.

Now she expects to do more.

And that's one of the goals of this outdoor classroom, says Sue Rasor-Greenhalgh, interim director of the School of Family and Consumer Sciences. She, along with other members of the school's faculty, have been planning the garden over the past year as a hands-on way to demonstrate to students and the community the importance of urban gardening as a source for good quality, locally grown food.

Students expected to get their hands dirty

"This is going to be a working garden where students in our nutrition and dietetics programs will help to care for the plants, harvest the produce and use it in meal preparation," says Rasor-Greenhalgh. "We have students in our programs who really have no idea where their food comes from, or how to identify the plants that provide it. Now they’ll be seeing and preparing all kinds of food.

Sue Rasor-Greenhalgh, interim director of the School of Family and Consumer Sciences.

"We also hope to involve interested students from across campus in the garden," adds Rasor-Greenhalgh. "What we've initiated here very much ties in with the national trends we're seeing — the green movement, the sustainability movement, the health and wellness movement."

"I enjoyed my 'Gardening 101' class," says Meduri, a graduate student in the Institute for Teaching and Learning. "I was amazed by the design in both the flower and vegetable gardens. Most importantly, I learned how to plant."

Project is a collaborative effort

Funding for the Culinary Teaching Garden was provided through a $10,000 gift from The University of Akron Women's Committee. Project partners include members of UA's grounds crew, led by Rick Riccardi, coordinator of site design and landscaping, and Denise Ellsworth, coordinator of the Master Gardener Program at The Ohio State University Summit County Extension Office.

Rasor-Greenhalgh says they always knew where they wanted to locate the garden. The courtyard, near their classrooms, already had six free-form raised concrete planting beds. And since Schrank Hall South surrounds the courtyard on all four sides, they won't have to share their bounty with grazing wildlife, as so many home gardeners do.

But those walls also posed a challenge. For this new garden to grow, many ornamental plants and a dying tree had to be removed and the soil amended.

"Just about everything had to go in or out by wheelbarrow through the building," says Riccardi. "This has been an interesting project because it's so different from everything else we do on campus. We're looking forward to seeing it develop and expand."

Crops will rotate

This first year, the garden is confined to two of the six available beds. It includes many of the vegetables typically grown in Northeast Ohio, along with a few from other cultures. So alongside a variety of tomatoes and peppers, onions, beans, carrots, radishes and garlic are tomatillos and Chinese cabbage.

At left, Evelyn Taylor, director of the Nutrition Center, preps a daylily for planting while new gardener Divya Dronavalli, a graduate student in the Institute for Teaching and Learning, looks on. 

One bed includes some blueberry bushes while another has two dwarf pear trees. There also are a variety of herbs and edible flowers that students will learn how to use to enhance the taste and appearance of their meals in a healthy way.

Over time, Rasor-Greenhalgh says they expect to expand the garden into the remaining planting beds and also to include freestanding planters. And, to enhance its educational value and visual appeal, they'll try themed plantings within the beds.

The possibilities include a Salsa or Sauce Garden or a Soup or Stew Garden. A Children's Garden might feature plants associated with popular children's literature — "Jack in the Bean Stalk" (beans); "Cinderella" (edible pumpkins and gourds); and "Peter Piper" (peppers). A Natural Dye Garden — where all the basic colors are obtained from vegetation — would be of use to the Fashion Merchandising/Fiber Arts Program, also housed in Schrank Hall South.

"This is a wonderful opportunity to introduce our students to the concepts of community gardening, sustainability and nutritious food preparation in a very hands-on way," notes Rasor-Greenhalgh. "Wherever they go in the future they can continue to spread these concepts in their communities."

Media contact: Cyndee Snider, 330-972-5196 or