Summer 2022

Natural Selections

Students from Nuestro Mundo Community School work with Claudia Calderón, a member of the teaching faculty in the horticulture department, and recent UW graduate Jackie Olson, to place plants in the school’s garden.
In May 2022, students from Nuestro Mundo Community School work with Claudia Calderón (center, red shirt), a member of the teaching faculty in the horticulture department, and recent UW graduate Jackie Olson (far right) to place plants in the school’s garden. When Olson was an undergraduate, she and Calderón secured a Wisconsin Idea Fellowship grant to help initiate the Nuestro Mundo garden project. Photo by Page Gonzalez


Plants and humans have always been connected. They evolved together. Yet many people fail to realize how fundamental plants are to their daily lives — from food to fiber. Fortunately, two teams from CALS are offering highly visible and immersive reminders of this connection in the form of gardens.

A School Garden for ‘Our World’

Claudia Irene Calderón MS’09, PhD’10 has always loved both education and science, and she views gardens as a bridge between the two realms. And now she and a dedicated team are growing such a bridge for the students and teachers at Nuestro Mundo Community School, a Spanish-English dual-language immersion charter school in Monona, Wisconsin. (“Nuestro mundo” means “our world” in Spanish.)

“A dream for me would be to see the teachers feel comfortable to go outside to the garden and do the teaching of whatever lesson they’re doing, fulfilling whatever learning goals they have — but outside, using science as their classroom,” says Calderón, a researcher and a member of the teaching faculty in the horticulture department.

Calderón is part of Nuestro Mundo’s Green Team, a group of parents and volunteers interested in the outdoors and gardens and how they can be incorporated into the school’s curriculum. A few years ago, before Calderón was involved with the Green Team, the group established a rain garden full of native and perennial plants that capture runoff and provide habitat for pollinators. With help from Calderón and others at CALS, Nuestro Mundo’s outdoor gardens are expanding.

Calderón teamed up with Johanna Oosterwyk, manager of UW’s D.C. Smith Greenhouse, and her own Horticulture 355 Greenhouse Cultivation Lab class to grow plants for Nuestro Mundo. Following a parent suggestion for salsa gardens, Oosterwyk and Calderón arranged for students to cultivate cilantro, onions, peppers, tomatoes, and tomatillos. They also added corn, pumpkins, and beans (known as the “Three Sisters”) to create a traditional milpa garden. This Mesoamerican, pre-Hispanic system offered another cultural angle and more diversity and longevity throughout the growing season.

“It’s a great opportunity to get hands-on experience,” says Samantha Tepp BSx’23, who worked on the Nuestro Mundo garden project with fellow horticulture majors Lucia Wellso BSx’24 and Alan Fox BSx’22.

“[Helping out Nuestro Mundo] just makes me happy,” says Wellso. “Getting a younger generation to start thinking about [gardening] is really vital.” Research about school gardens shows that when children begin to experience the process of growing and maintaining plants, they’re introduced to an entirely new world — including the movement of produce from farm to table — that is essential to sparking their interest in agriculture.

On May 19, with the threat of frosts long gone, the Green Team transported the greenhouse plants to the Nuestro Mundo garden beds, where teachers and students alike can learn and enjoy while getting their hands dirty.

“The gardens provide so much wellbeing, so many benefits,” says Calderón, who says she loses track of time and forgets her worries while gardening. “And the benefits extend beyond academics.”

A University Garden for the Community

Just like schools, universities also host gardens. And the UW–Madison campus has its fair share — from Allen Centennial Garden near the Lake Mendota shoreline to the Botany Garden below Birge Hall. There’s also the Eagle Heights Community Gardens, slightly off the beaten path. Located on the far west side of campus, these gardens are home to the F.H. King Student Farm, where students can practice sustainable agriculture, as well as a plot of land managed by the UW’s GreenHouse Learning Community.

Alan Fox, a senior horticulture major, waters and fertilizes plants in D.C. Smith Greenhouse with Lucia Wellso, a sophomore horticulture major.
Alan Fox, right, a senior horticulture major, waters and fertilizes plants in D.C. Smith Greenhouse with Lucia Wellso, a sophomore horticulture major. The two were helping prepare plants destined for a garden at Nuestro Mundo Community School. Photo by Michael P. King

The GreenHouse gardens contain a diverse array of vegetable crops, including many varieties that were brought from Africa by African people or have been adopted by African people into their foodways. “There’s such a rich heritage of Afro-diasporic crops in this country,” says Rue Genger, a scientist with the horticulture department. The garden, which Genger helps maintain, sheds light on that rich heritage.

The Afro-diasporic garden is a culmination of people and ideas. Yusuf Bin-Rella is a chef who founded TradeRoots Culinary Collective, a Madison-based company aimed at promoting food sovereignty. Bin-Rella and Genger attended a presentation on Indigenous cropping methods during a public field day at West Madison Agricultural Research Station a few years back. Bin-Rella, who is African American, mused to Genger that he would love to see a similar project for the crops considered important to Black agricultural and culinary traditions. Then, in fall 2019, Genger heard graduate student Christian Keeve MS’20 give a presentation about Afro-diasporic crop and seed-keeping research.

“That moment, and the moment talking with Yusuf, came together, and I really wanted to get the two of them to talk,” said Genger. “That’s really how the garden came about in the first place.”

The COVID-19 pandemic quickly complicated plans for the garden. Bin-Rella had planned to host community dinners with produce from the garden; instead, most of the produce was donated to Badger Rock Neighborhood Center. Bin-Rella also participated in Badger Rock’s online weekly cooking demonstration with garden produce.

“It was really nice to see the ability to pivot and still get information out there to people about these crops and still be able to share the culinary traditions,” said Genger. “It was great to be able to take that produce to Badger Rock every week and know that it was going to get onto people’s tables.”

Genger plans to contribute to the garden at Eagle Heights this upcoming school year, where it will be a resource for both students and Badger Rock alike. Every student at UW will have the opportunity to utilize the garden to learn about growing plants and come away with a better understanding of Afro-diasporic crops.

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