“[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.
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