CLEMSON — A group of Clemson University students believes everyone should have access to healthy foods.

Clemson students grow radishes in raised beds as part of the Tiger Gardens Creative Inquiry project.

Clemson students grow vegetables in wooden-boxed beds as part of the Tiger Gardens Creative Inquiry project designed to help them learn more about how to give people access to healthy foods.
Image Credit: Clemson University

The students are plant and environmental sciences and materials science and engineering majors who are developing Tiger Gardens to demonstrate how healthy vegetables can be grown anywhere, even on concrete.

The students built wooden beds, complete with irrigation systems, on concrete slabs on the Clemson University campus. They filled the boxes with soil and planted 14 varieties of vegetables. The gardens are a Creative Inquiry project the students embarked upon after learning the obesity rate in South Carolina was 39 percent.

“We found research that suggests the failure to link agricultural production with human nutrition and health has led to the development of unhealthy food systems,” said Alex Abare, a senior plant and environmental sciences major from Lexington. “We found chronic diseases linked to malnutrition and high caloric intake are the result of unhealthy food systems. We built Tiger Gardens to show that people can grow healthy vegetables to eat even if they live in a city.”

Ben Dahill, a junior materials science and engineering student from Pendleton, said nutrient analyses were conducted to determine which vegetables to plant.

“We’re going to use the information we’ve learned to create fact sheets,” Dahill said. “These fact sheets will be available to the public so that anyone, anywhere, can use the information to grow similar gardens.”

The Tiger Garden Creative Inquiry project team is comprised of five students. Each student is responsible for a different unit in the project. Vegetables planted included arugula, broccoli, brussel sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, kale, kohlrabi, radishes and mustard greens.

“We each determined what we needed to do in order to complete our part of the project, and we did it,” Abare said. “We meet once a week to discuss with one another what we are doing and how our individual units affected each part of the project.”

Josh Yeargin, a junior plant and environmental sciences major from Pendleton, is responsible for the infrastructure and design of the garden. Abare is responsible for the cultural management unit. Dahill is responsible for post harvest and management tasks. Freddy Carruth, a junior plant and environmental sciences major from Charleston, is responsible for pest management and Joy Randall, also a junior plant and environmental sciences major from Columbia, is responsible for duties associated with soil and fertility.

“We built eight wooden boxes for Tiger Gardens,” Yeargin said. “Our main objective is to develop a vegetable garden model based on normal nutritional requirements for a family.”

In developing the model, the students included locally available crops that would provide sufficient nutrients. They also considered demographic and socioeconomic factors, such as household income, seed and fertilizer sources, weather patterns, soil types, food budget, socioeconomic impact and availability of local crops. The students have been able to apply knowledge they had learned in the classroom to determine what they need to do to make the garden flourish.

“I have had to make some soil amendments using fertilizer that was appropriate for the vegetables we planted,” Randall said. “I had to calculate how much fertilizer was needed so that I could be sure to add the correct amount to the soil.”

Pests have not been too much of a problem.

“I have detected a few nematodes,” Carruth said. “Other than that, the plants have not experienced much stress by pests.”

The students are being led by Paula Agudelo, associate professor, and Dil Thavarajah, assistant professor, both in plant and environmental sciences.

“The beauty of this project is that it involves an interdisciplinary team of individuals working together to achieve a common goal,” Thavarajah said.

“The students have done everything,” Agudelo said. “They determined what they wanted to do. They have created a budget. They have decided what vegetables to plant. They have taken care of the gardens. They have done it all.”

All of the students agreed working on the project said it has been a meaningful experience they will never forget.

“This hands-on approach really drives it home,” Abare said. “We have been able to use what we had learned in the classroom to create and grow these gardens to provide healthy foods. Hopefully, others will use our project as an example of what they can do in their communities to help combat the obesity problem in our state.”

After harvesting some of the vegetables, the students created food dishes and served guests at a picnic lunch held in the gardens.

The Tiger Gardens Creative Inquiry project was designed to help the students:

  • increase awareness of the importance of vegetables to reduce hunger, malnutrition and obesity;
  • understand the basics of home garden design;
  • become familiar with procedures to assess nutritional value; and
  • understand the principles behind integrated pest management in home garden settings.

The students said the plans are to continue the gardens for three more semesters. They are chronicling their progress on Facebook and Instagram: tiger_gardens, or click here for Tiger Gardens image gallery.

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Creative Inquiry is a unique program that gives Clemson University undergraduate students the opportunity to work on research projects that span disciplines and multiple semesters. Students work in teams with faculty mentors, take ownership of their projects and take the risks necessary to solve problems and get answers. Creative Inquiry participants develop critical thinking skills, learn to solve problems and hone their communication and presentation skills. For more information, go to www.clemson.edu/ci.