Thursday, August 28, 2014


The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (8/28/2014


          The SSLUG garden at NAU meanders down a draw between a parking lot and the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, and then pausing for a moment, it makes a left turn down a deep descent to a pleasant greensward bordering McConnell Drive.  At the pause is a shelter with several benches for outdoor meetings and rest.  In its descent it passes between the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences and the College of Business Administration.


A deft example of redeeming wasted space, with the blessing of the university the garden was created by a group of students led by Ian Dixon-McDonald to bring forth wealth out of detrital poverty.  Paradoxically, artichokes thrive next to pumpkins while nourishing their differences in the same soil.  Also, the garden is productive without profit while renewing the land.  In short, the SSLUG garden is a statement.


          The garden’s name is one of those artificially contrived acronyms in favor nowadays.  It is Students for Sustainable Living and Urban Gardening.  Slugs are garden pests found in warmer climes, but never mind, this is a college garden.


          The buildings for the two colleges are handsomely nondescript.   Straight lined, they reflect the academic attempt rationally to understand the irrational, that is, human behavior.   


The garden’s not rational.  Like Topsy in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, it “just growed.”  It wasn’t designed.  It evolved out of a vision by students who understood that education if just cerebral is incomplete without engaging gardening and the land.  At first glance the garden starts at the top, but it grew from the bottom, gradually climbing up the wasted slopes, reclaiming them as it went. 


The SSLUG garden in many ways is a return to the primitive farming methods of composting, plowing leftover organic matter back into the ground.  Along with that it is a rejection of modern industrial fertilizers and pesticides in favor of the organic.


At the very top of the garden are the composting bins, apparently made out of scrap lumber, scrounged from somewhere around the university, but then again compost bins are seldom gleamingly straight lined. 


All through the garden, even up on balconies, are various tanks and containers in which rainwater is saved for use in the garden.  Composting and saving rainwater are a part of the sustainability which is better called renewal because we are all playing “catch up” rather than sustaining.


There is no apparent design to the hundreds of small beds nurtured by the various students or to the bizarre juxtaposition types of plants.  It appears haphazard to the eye, but useful to the gardeners who want to grow the fruit, vegetables, and flowers.  In short, it makes sense to anyone connected to the land.  Designer gardens are tidy.  Productive gardens aren’t.  Practicality is as much a test for truth as is coherence. 


          Jan Busco, the current COG (Campus Organic Gardener), oversees and manages the garden.  She knows more about gardening in the high country than anyone else I have ever met, and added to that, like the land, she nourishes plants and humans with a smile that envelopes the whole of her face.  If anyone craves an interesting, ironic, funny conversation, she’s the person to go to.  She’s a beauty in jeans. 


She pointed out several examples of a slick use of the military tactic of diversion, planting a strong plant or weed next to a weaker plant so as to draw predators away.  A large purple amaranth with several holes dotting its leaves sat cheek by jowl with some fragile lettuce.  An unwanted cut-leaf viper grass gave pollen to the bees and seeds for small birds.


          As we passed a couple of purple artichoke plants, she noticed that one of the artichokes had been picked.  She said, “One of the reassuring things about the garden is the gardeners.  They never take more than they need.  They always leave something for someone else.”


          When so many are on hell-bound drives for success, what better words to describe the garden than that “they always leave something for someone else.”  The SSLUGGERS are not only sustaining the earth but also one another.  Talk about quality!

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2014

Dana Prom Smith and Freddi Steele edit Gardening Etcetera for the Arizona Daily Sun.  Smith emails at and blogs at







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