Nick Spring, Outback coordinator, poses with a chicken. Photo by Daniel Berman/The AS Review

Alex Bacon/The AS Review

Among the trees, just off the trail leading from Fairhaven College to Buchanan Towers, is the Outback Outdoor Experiential Learning Program.  The Outback is a student-run farm on campus where Western students, faculty and staff, as well as members of the Bellingham community, have the opportunity to grow produce and learn to garden.

There are five different kinds of gardens in the Outback.  There is a community garden, where people can grow produce.  Additionally, there’s an herb garden, a market garden and a forest garden.  Each garden is coordinated by a different student who welcomes help from volunteers to maintain the areas.

There is also an educational garden where Nick Spring, Outback coordinator, teaches anyone interested the basics of gardening.  Spring has been involved with the Outback for three years and was recently hired as the Outback coordinator.

Nick Spring, Outback coordinator, waters squash plants in the covered greenhouse. Photo by Daniel Berman/The AS Review

There are 30 to 35 individual plots in the community garden. People with plots are expected to weed and maintain their plots, but other than general upkeep, the only requirement for a plot is a commitment to spend time in the garden. Plots are a one-year commitment and the main growing season is spring through fall.  If students want a plot but can’t take care of it during the summer, they can have a friend maintain it for them, but Spring suggests working as a team for a while before a transition is made.

Students, staff, faculty and community members can apply for a plot by contacting Mara Winslow at outbackgardens@gmail.com. There is currently a 20-person waiting list for plots, but people can go to the Outback during staff garden hours, which are posted on the door of the Outback’s office (Viking Union 424), to help out in the garden.

The Outback grows produce such as broccoli, carrots, kale, mustard greens, strawberries and mint.  Seeds, tools, compost and anything else someone might need to maintain a garden are all provided, Spring said. The gardens are all organic, so unnatural fertilizers and chemical sprays are not allowed.  As a result, ladybugs are abundant in the garden.
But the Outback isn’t only full of vegetables, herbs and other plants.  There are bees, bunnies, chickens and ducks as well.  Students have brought in hives for honeybees.  There are chickens in a coop, two soft rabbits that enjoy mint and lemon balm and a number of ducks to act as slug control.

Spring raised a couple of the chickens from the time they were chicks, before he was the Outback coordinator.  He gave them to someone else who in turn gave the chickens to the Outback.

Every Sunday there are work parties in the Outback.  There are a variety of projects people can work on, such as constructing buildings, stream restoration and compost building or weeding.  One project that was recently finished was a pen and a run around the garden for the ducks.

Adam Roberts, a student who has been involved in the Outback for seven years, said the Outback had ducks about five years ago.  The ducks were killed by raccoons, but the new pen is better than the old pen so raccoons shouldn’t be a problem. The ducks roam the gardens looking for slugs whenever they’re loose, he said.

Roberts said that deer and slugs are the biggest threat to the gardens.  Fences keep the deer out and the ducks should take care of the slug problem.

“Ducks are awesome,” he said.  “They’re always on slug patrol.”

Much of what is grown in the Outback is edible produce.  People can keep what they grow in their individual plots, but if they don’t want what they grow, the produce from their plot, along with produce from other parts of the garden, can be given to volunteers at Sunday work parties or donated to the Bellingham Food Bank.

“The Outback is pretty much the best thing on campus,” Roberts said.

He spends all his time in the Outback; he’d rather be out there than in class, he said.  The Outback is a good escape from school, books and computers, he said.  The garden is productive, but Roberts said the best part is the learning experience he gets by being involved.

Anyone can get involved with the Outback, no matter how much they know about gardening, Roberts said.  All it takes is interest, commitment and time, he said.

On average, 30 to 50 people go through the garden on each day, Spring said.  There are usually 10 to 15 people at each Sunday work party but on sunny days there could be as many as 30.

To contact Spring, e-mail him at as.outback@wwu.edu.

Photo by Daniel Berman/The AS Review