By Shawna Leader/The AS Review

The Outback Garden is located on south campus between Buchanan Towers and Fairhaven College. Photo by Erik Simkins.

The Outback Garden is located on south campus between Buchanan Towers and Fairhaven College. Photo by Erik Simkins.

The Outback Experiential Learning Program (OELP), Western’s 37-year-old garden, has seen some changes as a result of the expansion of dorm residence Buchanan Towers, located on south campus. This past summer, a section of the Outback garden was removed to make way for part of the new parking lot, Outback Coordinator Matia Jones said.

“That expansion has taken out a swath of the Outback just south of the forest garden,” Jones said. According to the University Residences Web site, the construction took place  to meet the demand for more dorm space.

The construction took out some blackberry bushes, which Jones admitted won’t be missed, but it also removed some plum and cedar trees and a fence built by Outback volunteers. However, Ebenal, the construction company, plans to rebuild the fence, Jones said.

“When we walked out there, there were some areas that were fenced,” Project Manager Bob Schmidt said. To Schmidt, this was a clear indication of the Outback’s boundaries. He  said the limits of the forest garden were defined when he walked the grounds with John Tuxill, a faculty advisor to the Outback, and Roger Gilman, dean of Fairhaven College.

“Students working in the Outback considered all of the area up to the parking lot to be the Outback because that was the only obvious boundary,” Tuxill said. “Most of the vegetation that was removed along that edge was Himalayan blackberries, but several old fruit trees were also removed.”

The discrepancy may be a result of the Outback’s undefined boundaries, Tuxill said.

According to Jones, the Outback appears to have no permanent boundaries.  This worries her not only because she believes this may allow more of the Outback to disappear, but also because students should know where the Outback is located. She said she has noticed that the Outback is not marked on official school maps and is pursuing her goal of getting the Outback on them.

“Student fees go to the upkeep of the place [and] it shouldn’t be hidden from them,” Jones said.

A six-foot “buffer zone,” which will consist of native plant species, will be planted between the parking lot and the Outback, she said. A professional landscaper experienced with environmental impact mitigation projects will be designing the area, Jones said. Students will have the opportunity to get involved with the process.

“Right now I have a Huxley student doing an internship/independent study … modifying plans so that what gets planted is what students want,” said Tuxill. The contractors want student input and Tuxill suggested that students choose to plant species that can be harvested and eaten.

“I am glad that WWU students will be involved in planning the landscaping for the Buchanan Towers expansion project as it will continue to help focus student interest and energies on sustainability in the Outback and nearby areas of campus green space,” said Tuxill. “I think that is one of the most important benefits the [Buchanan] Towers expansion will provide.”

Tuxill described a situation in which the landscaper had decided to plant Douglas fir trees in the buffer zone. Although those are a native species, Tuxill pointed out in a meeting that the trees would eventually block plants in the forest garden. This incident led to the decision to involve students in the landscaping process, he said.

“My main focus is … [the buffer zone] is going to be planted with species that fit the Outback’s long-term plans,” Tuxill said.

During the planning process, the University was concerned with maintaining runoff, so rain gardens will be used to stop nonpoint pollution, Jones said. Nonpoint pollution occurs when rainwater mixes with oil drippings in a cement parking lot and washes pollution into wetland and creek areas.

Runoff can end up in Padden Creek, which is a salmon protection site, Tuxill said, and rain gardens stop nonpoint pollution by allowing water to percolate on the site. The water is collected through the use of banks and berms, then absorbed by biofiltrators, plants that have the ability to break down petroleum products, Jones said. The water is able to flow into the groundwater supply stored in a tank and released into marshes and streams, Schmidt said.

These landscaping projects provide excellent learning opportunities for students, and while some of the Outback was removed, the new landscaping is a positive feature, Jones said.

“The bottom line is that there wasn’t much disturbance in the forest garden,” Tuxill said.

With the construction still ongoing, the landscaping will not officially begin until the building is finished. In the meantime, Jones has several other projects in the works, including finishing the Outback amphitheatre. The stage should be done by the end of this quarter, she said.

The Outback will also receive assistance from students with work study and from Americorps volunteers, Jones said.
Renovations are taking place in the herb garden and Jones is looking into creating raised beds for the community garden. Raised beds are made by building wooden frames and filling them with compost, allowing seeds to be planted in better soil, Jones said.

The Outback will continue to donate to the Bellingham Food Bank, a practice it has kept up for three years. The Child Development Center still has its own garden at the Outback and students of all ages have participated in gardening and restoration projects there, Jones said.

Additionally, the Outback, which recently acquired chickens, will hold a workshop on chicken care and animal husbandry on Oct. 15, Jones said.

With the heightened interest in sustainability and small-scale agriculture, on-campus gardens are becoming more common, Jones said, but the Outback is different from most other universities’ gardens.
“Ours is older than most,” Jones said.  “There aren’t a whole lot of schools that have had them as long as we have. Most schools have had a staff or faculty person who runs them, so it’s not a purely student-run endeavor.”

There are positive aspects to the Outback’s student-centered approach, such as teaching people how to navigate bureaucracy and to do small-scale construction projects, Jones said. But it also takes a lot of time and energy away from gardening and people get burned out, she said.

One of the Outback’s goals is to alter how the site is taken care of so it is not completely student-run, Jones said. She suggested that University Facilities should manage some of the infrastructure issues.

“[The Outback is] on a pretty amazing upswing and it has been for … about four years,” she said. “We’re hoping that we can maintain that.”