The SSLUG Garden is one of several accurately acronymed gardens on Northern Arizona University’s campus. SSLUG stands for Students for Sustainable Living and Urban Gardening. Situated between SBS West and SBS Castro, this garden is home to a plethora of native plants and abundant produce. Many students walk through the garden on their way to and from class; some appreciate the natural beauty, but most seem unaware of the vegetables growing beneath the ground and the fruit hanging on branches above. A group that disregards the garden entirely is the NAU Administration.
In 2006, the garden was only just beginning. With the help of students and knowledgeable faculty, the garden grew from a single bed to an area spanning about 4,000 square feet. After twelve years of care, the SSLUG garden has twenty-three garden beds, five fruit trees, and always a copious amount of flowering plants. During its developmental years, NAU’s administration kept their distance from the garden in regard to funding and involvement. It was not until recent years that the administration abandoned their neutral stance to take on a more negative, unhelpful one.
In the Spring of 2018, I was hired to be a summer caretaker for the SSLUG garden. I was responsible for daily care to all plants in this garden; my job included watering, weeding, trimming, planting, and harvesting. I was also assigned a mentor, and he and I worked together twice a week. He guided me in more technical garden care. Teaching me, for example, the scientific names of plants as well as how to visually interpret what specific plants need. When applying for this job, the only gardening experience I had was helping my mom prune flowers in our front yard. During my summer in the SSLUG garden, I received the space and guidance from my mentor to truly connect with the Earth and learn how to really care for a garden and successfully grow a variety of plants. This garden is a community space where all are welcome to experiment, learn, play, and enjoy nature.
During my summer in the garden I received countless emails from the NAU administration explaining how the garden looks “unkempt” and like an “eye-sore." They constantly asked me to cut down more and more sections of the garden in order to fit their tidy ideal. While I do understand their desire to keep the campus tidy for guests, the purpose of a garden is to grow, to flourish, to spread life and to nourish. Most times, I could not bring myself to cut down the thriving asparagus, chard, or rhubarb, despite their “unattractive” appearances.
After the negative emails, the first real strike from the administration was their decision to fire the current horticulturalist and then terminate that position entirely. The person who last filled this position was Jan Busco; she published her own book about native Flagstaff horticulture and had been working in the SSLUG Garden for four years. This past summer, Jan took time off to care for family, and while she was away, the administration decided to fire her. A week later, the administration terminated her position. Then, the rest of the garden volunteers and I were told that we were now unable to access the money in the SSLUG garden account. From years of selling the garden’s produce at the farmer’s market and small donations, we had accumulated about $1,500 in funds. I believe that it is unjust of the administration to withhold the money that the volunteers have raised themselves for the garden. In the battle for the SSLUG garden, the administration has undermined our leadership and cut us off from our own funds.
Unfortunately, the SSLUG garden is not the only instance of administrative bodies not recognizing the beauty and potential of community gardens. There are many community gardens in Arizona--and across the country--that are fighting for support and funding in the way that we are. In a technologically advanced and consumer-driven world, visiting a community garden is not seen as of high importance. Low community involvement is one reason many administrations justify cutting funding from these programs; by showing interest in urban, community gardens, we can help save the SSLUG garden and others like it. If the administration sees students and community members enjoying the garden and taking the initiative to volunteer to care for the Earth, they may begin to see the beauty themselves.
If you are interested in learning more about the SSLUG garden or want to volunteer your time, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or like us on Facebook.