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Foothill’s permaculture garden transforms space

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Zoe Morgan/Town Crier
Foothill horticulture instructor Frank Niccoli inspects the pomegranates that are growing in the permaculture garden on campus.

Less than two years ago, the space was a dumping ground for old concrete and asphalt. Today the area is packed with a cornucopia of fruit and vegetable plants.

Students and faculty in Foothill College’s horticulture program turned a plot of land on the southwestern corner of the campus into a permaculture garden, replete with fruit trees, various vegetables, vines growing along the fence and a pollinator garden.

Getting the space to this point has been a multistep process. First, approximately 60 cubic yards of concrete and asphalt had to be removed. The process took about six weeks, instructor Frank Niccoli estimated.

“I just hated to see it go to waste and I saw the potential,” Niccoli said of the space.

Last May, the first plants were put in. As the name would suggest, the idea behind permaculture is to create a permanent garden that will withstand the test of time and minimize environmental impact.

Problem solving in the garden

According to Niccoli, the goal is to minimize inputs and maximize outputs. There is a focus on using existing materials and mimicking nature.

“It’s more of a mindset, and a way of thinking about the garden, and a way of problem solving in the garden, as opposed to a consistent technique,” said Kati McHugh, a student in the program.

McHugh has been studying permaculture for the past decade and began taking horticulture classes at Foothill last fall. When she heard about the permaculture garden, she said she jumped at the chance to be involved.

For McHugh, permaculture is about creative problem solving, where “the problem is the solution.” For instance, one area of the garden didn’t have drainage, so water was pooling. To fix the problem, a raised bed was added over that spot.

Using available resources is also a focus of permaculture. Niccoli makes compost using manure from the horses and goats that are part of the college’s veterinary technology program.

One continuing challenge was making sure the garden got enough water. Getting to the garden takes a short trek because it sits atop a hill on campus.

“Basically I just spent the three months during spring quarter just dashing up there whenever I could and getting water in the ground,” McHugh said.

Over the summer, she worked with other students, as well as Niccoli, to design and install an irrigation system. The project was completed in mid-August and McHugh said she’s already seen an improvement in the garden.

“I believe in automating as much of that as possible so when you get to go out to the garden, you actually get to play in the garden, instead of just holding a hose,” she said.

Throughout the garden, there is a focus on using perennials and plants that do well in the location and climate. The current crop includes kale, collard greens, strawberries, raspberries, many varieties of tomatoes and peppers, lemon verbena, nasturtiums and milkweed.

In the future, the plan is to add more vines on the fence and plant some exotic fruit trees, Niccoli said. The aim is also to encourage more pollinators to come to the garden, including monarch butterflies, whose numbers have plummeted in California.

People of the garden

All told, Niccoli estimated that around 40 students have worked on the garden. The students range widely in age and experience. Some are traditional college students who come to Foothill after high school, but many are longtime garden enthusiasts returning to school for a more formal horticulture education.

“There are lots of people like me who have worked in some other industry and we have had enough of desk jobs and we have come gravitating toward gardening,” said Viji Jagannathan, who has taken horticulture classes at Foothill for the past three
years.

In 2016, Jagannathan quit her job as a manager in the business school at Stanford University and started taking classes on and off at Foothill. Last year, she ramped up her studies and earned a certificate as a landscape technician. Now, she has her own business doing landscape design and fine gardening.

According to Niccoli, his students come from diverse professional backgrounds and often have successful careers in unrelated fields.

“They want to get into something that’s real, get their hands in the soil. It just grabs you – it’s very addicting,” Niccoli said. “At the end of the day, you can see exactly what you’ve done.”

Gardening has been a passion of Niccoli’s ever since his grandmother taught him how to plant parsley when he was 7 years old. That was 65 years ago and he said he has had a garden ever since.

“I just love plants,” he said. “I mean, I’ve loved plants all my life. Plants have been my whole life.”

Niccoli owned a landscape construction and maintenance company for 35 years before selling it in 2013. He has been teaching horticulture classes for 20 years at Foothill.

For Niccoli, the permaculture garden is a peaceful place where he comes to sit and meditate. It’s a place where students can come to work anytime.

Said Niccoli, “A lot of people work in the garden because it brings them peace.”

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