Oberlin Blogs

Down and Dirty (in the J-House Garden)

April 11, 2021

Ruth Bieber-Stanley ’21

Every Sunday morning, I get my hands covered in mud, and sometimes even return home with a random vegetable. This semester, I am taking a gardening ExCo class. ExCos are classes taught by fellow Oberlin students in a variety of cool subjects that can be taken for credit, or just for fun! I’ve taken some pretty great ExCos in my time at Oberlin, all movement based, including Swing Dance, Tap Dance, teaching Girls in Motion, and Tumbling, but this time around I felt like doing something a little different. 

I started getting interested in gardening gradually over the past few years as I joined a co-op and started to think a lot more about where the food we eat comes from. This interest increased when last summer, my mother started a quarantine garden and grew several things, most notably some preternaturally large zucchinis the size of small infants. So, this year, when I saw the gardening exco on the ExCo catalog, I knew I wanted to apply! 


Ruth holding a gigantic zucchini
Ruth holding a VERY large zucchini.

The gardening ExCo appealed to me for a lot of reasons, but mostly because all my classes are on Zoom this semester except for one, which only lasted the first half of the semester, and that means I spend probably upwards of 8 hours a day on a screen. Frankly, I don’t get out much, and going on the same walks around town can only do so much. I craved an activity that was physical, in nature, and grounding (so to speak), some space where I could be more present and also gain practical skills in planning, growing, and tending to a garden. In that same vein, I also found myself wanting to take care of something, something besides myself. I have found all that and more in the gardening ExCo! 

The ExCo happens every Sunday morning for two hours. My housemate (who is also in the class) and I walk all the way to J-House (technically Johnson House, the Hebrew Heritage house on campus), a beautiful old building that is majestic by daytime and slightly haunted at night. Behind J-House is a garden run by the Resource Conservation Team (RCT), a group of students who handle all things committed to reducing the college’s ecological footprint, including the compost program my house participates in. The garden has a number of beds and a hoop house, which was a lovely warm refuge in the colder months before the spring weather came. Each week when Sunday morning comes around, I’m a little tired, and a little worried about the homework I haven’t done yet that weekend. But every weekend, I’ve made time to go gardening, and every weekend I’m glad I make that choice, which is why I suppose I keep going back! Working in the garden, whether it’s pruning blackberry bushes, weeding, turning compost piles, or installing drip irrigation, is always calming and therapeutic, and I find that when I’m gardening, I’m not thinking about any of the things that worry me. All the tasks we do are very immersive and simple: pick weeds out of ground and put in bucket, or: sit in sun, crawl in blackberry tangle, and cut dead branches. It’s a welcome change of pace from the normal do reading, draft paper, take quiz, think about a crush, contemplate scary post-grad future of my normal, day-to-day Oberlin existence this semester. 


The J-House garden entrance with a flowering apple tree in the background
The J-House Garden entrance: the hoop house and a flowering apple tree in the background.


gardening picture from inside blackberry cane
Picture of some of my fellow gardening students pruning blackberry canes.


close up of Ruth's hand with dirt in her nails holding a small blue flower
Holding a small blue flower in my dirt-covered fingers.


Something else I love about gardening is the ability to see, from one week to the next, how things have grown or changed. As spring has come to Oberlin, our plants have been flourishing. It’s not uncommon that I’ll go into the hoop house each week and say, “Wow! Everything looks so different!” Just today I went to J-house and saw that the apple and pear trees had blossomed. A lot can happen in a week, and it’s so humbling and gratifying to watch the seasons change in small ways. During our first class meeting on Zoom, we all introduced ourselves and talked about why we had signed up for the course. Our instructor talked about how she loves the way gardening lets her “look at things in loving detail,” which was such a sentiment so lovely I had to immediately write it down, and it’s stuck with me all these weeks later because of how true it is. 

Another thing that’s been so beautiful about this time gardening is that I really have learned a lot and feel so empowered by what I’ve gained. I know so much more about composting, planning and starting seeds, the ecosystem in a garden, the history of gardening in the US, and different growing methods. But I’ve also gained a lot of concrete skills, like how to install drip irrigation, something I am still proud of to a silly degree… I keep mentioning to people how excited I am about it, even when I have already told them at least once. Just today someone asked when the garlic in the hoop house was ready to harvest, and I was able to remember how to tell! (it’s when the stalks dry up and turn yellow, if anyone is curious). Even remembering this little detail was so empowering. I also love how gardening lets you learn by doing: it’s very experiential. I could read a hundred books about gardening, and that would be helpful, but ultimately sitting down in the dirt and ripping thistles violently out of the ground or seeing pill bugs and worms in the soil is more valuable. 


Ruth holding coiled drip line for irrigation and some large shears
Ruth in the hoop house holding irrigation drip line and some large shears.


drip irrigation lines in a garden bed
Our handiwork! two drip irrigation lines in a bed installed just this morning- note the kale!


I’m grappling with a lot of feelings about graduating, leaving Oberlin, and not knowing what my future will hold just six weeks from now. But, on Sunday mornings, I go to the garden with the prospect of a clear head for a few hours, and I’m so grateful. The garden is consistent…and it changes: it’s consistent in that it changes. And for a little while when I’m there, I don’t think about anything. And when I do, and start to think about my future, I remember that if the lettuce and spinach we put in the ground can sprout from seeds, and apple trees can blossom, maybe I’ll grow where I’m planted, too. 


close up photo of pink apple blossoms
Close-up photo of some pink apple blossoms.


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