‘I’m grounded here’: Down-to-earth Scripps gardening club cultivates ties to sustainability, agriculture, community

Students tend to seedlings at a gardening plot.
After the garden was left unattended due to the pandemic, the Scripps Student Gardening Club has had to replace almost all of its plants. (Anna Choi • The Student Life)

As cooler weather rolls into Claremont, it gives way to persimmon season. Last week, behind Scripps College’s Browning Hall, the Scripps Student Gardening Club feasted on the just-ripening fruit.

Many students, even those living in Browning, might not know this refreshing space exists just beyond the rose garden. The Scripps Student Garden was neglected for years until former Scripps Associated Students sustainability chair Sondra Abruzzo SC ’19 decided to revitalize it in the spring of 2019, creating the club to help care for it.

When COVID-19 hit, the grounds were abandoned again. When members returned, only a handful of plants had survived, including a kale crop taller than one of the garden coordinators, Sophie Perry SC ’22.

“We came to it at the beginning of the year … [and said] we’ve got to get this back to where it was,” Perry said. “I think it’s kind of been a forgotten-about space … we’re trying to revitalize it and make it more of a central spot to be on campus.”

Caring for the garden is a team effort that extends beyond the club’s student membership. Staff at Scripps trim various fruit trees in the garden, and landscape operations manager Joya Salas helps them secure compost and coordinate irrigation. 

The club has been working on laying out compost in the beds and planting seeds, trying to revive their small ecosystem. Now, they are growing fall vegetables like swiss chard, snap peas and radishes.

“We’re waiting for all of our seeds to sprout up right now … it doesn’t look like there’s much going on, but I’m hoping soon everything will explode,” Perry said. “We’re just growing some foods that we think that students would be excited to eat salads with and make their own food with.”

Although the club undertakes the responsibility for looking after the space, members prefer it to be known as somewhere all Scripps students can gather. Club coordinator Sophie Navratil SC ’22 described how before the pandemic, the space was secretive and known only by word-of-mouth, which they are working to change. 

“Even if people aren’t going to come to [the] club … we want you to know that this is a space that every student can use [and] can harvest from [if] you want to cook with fresh vegetables,” Navratil said.

So if it’s a challenge for interested students to make the 9 a.m. Friday meetings, they’re still able to use the space to their liking. And joining the club doesn’t require experience; part of the fun comes from experimenting with the unknown. 

“I think just a big part of it is learning as we go and bringing together everyone’s knowledge … learning from each other and just figuring it out,” Perry said.

She also noted how an agriculturally based club not led by men fosters a much less competitive environment. In her time working on male-dominated farms, she felt more pressure to prove her worth and ability. In contrast, at the Scripps Student Gardening Club, members can focus on learning from each other equally in a non-hypermasculine environment. 

“I think it’s nice that we can create a different tone that’s much more [about] caring for each other and [being] collaborative [than] kind of a competitive or top down kind of dynamic,” Perry said. 

The focus on community building makes the club feel more pleasure-oriented. While not required to regularly attend meetings, members often do because of its therapeutic nature.

“I just really love working with the earth,” member Kaitlyn Chin SC ’23 said. “[It’s] a very peaceful and great way to meet other people also who share the same love.”

“[Being in the garden] makes me feel more connected to Scripps as a home rather than as like this kind of manicured campus that we just happen to live on.” —Beia Giebel SC ’25

To replenish its numbers after a year lying fallow, the club has focused on recruiting new members. Beia Giebel SC ’25 found out about the club from a zine that was passed out at Malott Dining Hall.

“[Being in the garden] makes me feel more connected to Scripps as a home rather than as like this kind of manicured campus that we just happen to live on,” Giebel said. “It’s a really unique atmosphere.”

Navratil, who hails from the East Coast, affirms this by saying that working in the garden has made her feel like she’s creating space and not just passively living in Claremont.

“I’m grounded here,” Navratil said. “Learning about … what can grow here has felt very integral to me feeling home here.”

Beyond working on the garden, the club plans on hosting workshops — such as ones on resin plant-pressing, natural dyes and medicinal plants — throughout the rest of the semester. They also plan on making an edible plant map for community members to use around campus.

Scripps Gardening Club does work outside Scripps’ walls, too, with plans to continue partnering with the Pomona and Pitzer farms. Before the pandemic hit, the club volunteered weekly with Huerta del Valle, an Ontario-based organization that works to bring organic food to communities without access to it, and they plan to resume this collaboration.

“That’s been really rewarding … as we’re trying to figure out how we can tangibly meet our goals with being food justice-oriented,” Perry said.

While providing food to Scripps students and the greater community helps fulfill these goals, both coordinators agree one of the garden’s biggest successes is the broader awareness and organizing for sustainability at Scripps. The club has learned to cultivate care for the community by providing food to Scripps students and those in surrounding areas. But both coordinators agree that the backdrop against which the garden is succeeding is the organizing done by students for sustainability at Scripps.

In Fall 2019, Scripps students protested for a carbon commitment at the college. The administration eventually signed on to develop an action plan and met some other environmentally conscious demands like a full-time sustainability coordinator.

“​​Scripps hasn’t always lived up to its claims of being so green — even though it is mainly, physically,” Perry said. “Through student organizing, that’s improved a lot over the past few years … and we’re happy to be a part of that.”

The club used to benefit from a system that allowed students to compost inside their dorm, using it for the garden, but was again stopped by COVID-19. They are still adamant in their mission to be an outlet for students to participate in food justice and sustainable agriculture by teaching students how to grow their own food.

“Something that I love about gardening is you learn that when you take care of the plants and things around you, they take care of you too through food,” Perry said. “I think that that’s such a striking metaphor and example of how to exist sustainably in the world.”

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