By Paul Morden, from www.theobserver.ca The Observer
When culinary students at Lambton College need some basil or oregano, they can go to the cupboard or they can step outside the program’s kitchen and pick something fresh from one of the planter boxes set up in a quiet courtyard.
And, they’ll graduate knowing how to create and maintain a sustainable garden for kitchens they go to work in.
It all began when Alastair Mackay, the college’s culinary program coordinator, arranged for students to tour Smith Homestead Farm on Oil Springs Line, where Paul and Jan Smith raise herbs and berries, along with heirloom tomatoes and vegetables.
Paul Smith said it was during one of the tours that he told the students, “You guys are going to have to learn how to grow what you cook.”
Beginning this school year, that’s what second-year students in the culinary management program are doing in a new sustainable agriculture course taught by Smith.
It began with several boxes Smith designed for the courtyard and planted with herbs, tomatoes, peppers, carrots, leeks, beets, squash and other vegetables and plants, including flowers to attract pollinators needed for the garden to survive.
Most of the flowers are also edible and can be used in the program’s kitchen by students in salads and to garnish plates.
With the summer winding down, some of the plants have also been allowed to go to seed, that will be collected and replanted as part of the approach to sustainable growing.
“Seed saving is an important factor for reducing costs for future years,” Mackay said, about one of the practical lessons students will learn.
Several months ago, he began the process of gaining approval to include the new course in the program.
The class Smith teaches includes theory, as well as hands-on experience planting and growing food in the college’s greenhouse.
Mackay said areas the course focuses on include soil fertility, seed diversity, crop rotation and companion planting.
The garden reinforces lessons learned in class, including a box demonstrating companion planting with its combination of tomatoes, peppers, basil and oregano.
“All four of those products not only go together on the plate,” Mackay said, “they actually grow really well together.”
They even tried out some approaches to growing produce through the winter last year, but most of the plants didn’t make it through the long stretches of bitter cold days.
“However, the kale survived,” Mackay said.
“We refer to kale as a super food, and now we know why.”
Local food and organic food are buzzwords in the culinary industry today, and the program already teaches students about sourcing local food and creating seasonal menus.
“The premise of the course, for our students, is to give them the confidence that they can do this on their own,” he said while standing in the garden.
“Not only teaching them to cook, but to cook with the food that they’ve grown.”
The hands-on experience and knowledge gained in the garden, greenhouse and sustainable agriculture class is something students can put on their resume, and put to use in their careers, Mackay said.
“It’s an important part of the culinary program that students are given an opportunity to not just understand, but be able to work inside a garden that engages in sustainable practices,” said Donna Church, executive dean of academic affairs.
She added the work being done by Smith at the college may also lead to research projects, and as well as opportunities for the college’s part-time studies program.