Growing Home

A garden finds a home where once little could grow—celebrating a decade at the Forge

Growing Home
Fresh: Oranges for the picking at the Forge Garden Stand. The garden itself sprung from a plot covered in construction debris. / Images by Andrea Yun

For Jessica Franco ’19, the thought of Santa Clara University without the Forge Garden is an inconceivable one.

Franco, one of four paid student-apprentices working at the Forge, got involved with the campus garden after attending one of its many events for students her freshman year. Since then, Franco says, the Forge has been a cornerstone of her college experience.

“I really can’t imagine where I would be at Santa Clara and how I would feel without being part of the Forge, and the community that’s here,” Franco says.

2019 marks the tenth anniversary of the Forge Garden and its community outreach program Bronco Urban Gardens (BUG). The Forge was created in 2009, built on a plot of university-owned land that had previously housed construction debris. It was not immediately clear that the space, then populated only by stories-high piles of dirt that leaked hot dust onto the houses nearby, could be made into a garden. It was valuable property for the university: a half-acre of open canvas in Silicon Valley. There was talk of building an additional residence community. At one point in the lifespan of the garden, it was slated to be a parking lot.

It was then-Head of University Operations Joe Sugg who originally pushed for a campus garden. Leslie Gray, then the director of the Environmental Studies Institute, was one of the faculty members with whom Sugg discussed the idea. Gray, now the Chair of the Environmental Science and Studies Department, was working toward the launch of the Environmental Studies and Science majors. She immediately saw the Forge as a chance to “imbue campus sustainability in a hands-on way.”

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Greens for sale: The Forge is more than a garden. It is also home to interdisciplinary projects—from an engineering class creating a rainwater capture system to an art class designing a logo. / Image by Andrea Yun 

“[Students] could see what it looked like to have a garden on campus, and to put their hands in the dirt,” she says.

It was a matter of bringing Sugg’s idea to life—that sounds easier than it was.

As the work started, the piles of dirt had been scraped away, but so had the land’s topsoil. After years suffocated by construction debris, what remained was sterile and unproductive, Gray says. Creating a healthy layer of topsoil meant planting a cover crop and composting it into the ground to build a layer of nutrients. There was no rushing the process—it all had to happen organically. Gray began at the literal ground level.

The first few years were tough, she says. The project was helped along by an AmeriCorps grant, allowing the project to hire three students and create an afterschool gardening program at Alma Community Center. Without funding from the University or any permanent staff, though, that first iteration of the Forge felt unsteady.

“When we began, Joe (Sugg) told us, ‘look, I can probably guarantee the space for the next 10 years,’” Gray says. “We recognized that for the first three or four years, the University could have easily taken the land back (for another purpose).”

Progress at the Forge—like at most gardens—happened slowly. Sugg’s persistence ultimately secured the garden funding from University Operations. Infrastructure followed that investment in 2012: first the solar house,  the hiring of a garden manager, a full-time staff member, and construction of raised beds later that year. Oversight of the Forge was transitioned to the Center for Sustainability and the garden became one of the Center’s signature programs, a hands-on way of growing the University’s mission to build a more humane, just, and sustainable world. As the Forge produced its first produce—Gray dropped off baskets of vegetables at the office of the Dean of Arts & Sciences, a kind of wordless request for continued support from the University.

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A little bit wild: Wildflowers wend their way through the chainlink fence around the Forge. Here, some are made up into a nosegay.  / Image by Andrea Yun

Slowly, slowly, the space began to assume its current form. The garden’s raised beds boasted seasonal crops year round. In the summers, tomatoes, strawberries, apricots, snap peas, and lettuce ripen in the sun. The street-facing wildflower garden began to take on a life of its own, unhindered by boundary: flowers and vines alike filled in the Forge’s front chain fence. As the garden took a more definitive shape and eventually became part of Santa Clara’s Master plan—something else Gray credits Sugg with pushing for—student engagement grew.

And it continues to rise.

“When I started here, the challenge was getting our name out with the student body,” Garden Manager Katharine Rondthaler says. “We had a lot of students that had no idea we existed, so we started doing collaborative events with campus organizations and other student clubs.”

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Get involved: There’s plenty to do at the Forge. As the garden has grown, so too has community involvement. / Image by Andrea Yun

It’s paid off. The garden has seen an increase in student involvement—during its open volunteer hours, with the Forge Garden Club, and garden events. Last year 80 different classes spent time in the garden, including engineering, theater, biology, and religion. Rondthaler was approached by a graphic design class that ultimately designed the garden’s new logo; an engineering class designed and built a rainwater harvesting system for the Forge’s greenhouse, which now relies only on rainwater during the winter.

The garden’s donation-based farm stand is another program popular with students and the outside community. Erin Ronald ’19, who began frequenting the stand after her junior year, says she comes to buy local produce that she knows is “grown with love and care.”

“There are different things offered seasonally, so I never really make a plan of what to get—I just come and see what looks good,” she says. “It does go faster because it’s fresh, but all the produce is so beautiful that you want to eat it right away.”

Gray, a member of the Forge’s advisory board, says she and Rondthaler are currently working on curriculum development. The goal is to create a minor that combines innovation and sustainable food systems, and to have more classes offered out of the space.

“I can’t tell you how emotional it is, seeing my dream fulfilled—having the Forge be what it is,” Gray says. The uncertainty of its early years is still vivid to her.

“My first few years with the garden was always about scratching and scrambling for more funding, trying to create the space, not knowing if it was going to survive,” she says. “But it’s part of campus now.”

It’s because of the Santa Clara community that rallied around the Forge that Jessica Franco will never have to know the garden-less school that seems unimaginable to her now.

“The people who are here make the garden what it is,” she said. “They have the kind of energy that reflects the life that’s growing here.”

Gray is hopeful that the expansion of relevant curriculum will bolster the garden’s community engagement even more. “We’ve come so far in the last 10 years—I think we can get there (in the next 10),” she says.

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Friday market: The Friday farm stand at the Forge is an important part of the week for many on campus. / Image by Andrea Yun
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