Teaching Gardens Get New Neighbors & Horsepower

NC State teaching gardens get new John Deere tractor

New Neighbors

“There’s only so much agronomy you can learn in a classroom.  At some point you have to get outside,” Bob Patterson, NC State agronomy professor, said. Crop and Soil Sciences is home to two similar yet very different teaching gardens: the organically managed Agroecology Education Farm and the conventional Bill Fike Teaching Garden.  For the first time, these outdoor learning labs are becoming neighbors and are sharing resources, including a powerful new John Deere tractor from Quality Equipment Company.

There’s only so much agronomy you can learn in a classroom.  At some point, you have to get outside.

The two teaching gardens were previously separated by miles – in distance and approach.  Now, the gap has narrowed to a 50-foot perennial grass buffer. The proximity of the multi-acre gardens offers students the opportunity to participate in different growing systems.  “A high proportion of our 2-year students come from large farm backgrounds but the majority of our 4-year students don’t. Seeing the two management systems side by side provides perspective and opportunity to students from both degree programs,” Patterson noted.  

NC State Agroecology Education Farm gets a new neighbor
Students work at the CALS Agroecology farm off Lake Wheeler Road. Photo by Marc Hall

Putting Down Shared Roots


Sourcing equipment to serve both gardens has been a challenge.  The new tractor is a huge step forward. “Now we’ll be able to plant cover crops and build soil health on parts of our land that we haven’t used before,” Allison Reeves, Agroecology Farm manager, said.  “Our students will get to experience what they’ve learned in the classroom and watch our heavy clay soils transform into something fruitful.”  

NC State Bill Fike Teaching Garden was started in 1974
Agronomy students have enjoyed research in the Bill Fike Teaching Garden since 1974

Soil health is a critical learning objective of both CS 213 and CS 111 – the basic agronomy classes for NC State’s 4-year and 2-year agronomy programs.  But cover cropping has been tricky since the old 1978 Ford tractor wasn‘t powerful enough to pull a grain drill or a disk. “The new Deere tractor changes everything.  We’ll be able to get a decent stand of cover crops established without succumbing to weeds,” Reeves said. “And we now have the potential to add all kinds of other equipment and take on projects that weren’t doable before.”

Bob Patterson started the four-acre Fike Garden in 1974 on NC State’s main campus.  Now the garden is getting a fresh start in a new location next door to the Agroecology Farm at the Lake Wheeler Road Field Laboratory.  “We’re starting [the Fike Garden] over from pretty much nothing,” Amy Johnson, professor and Agricultural Institute coordinator said.  “So building soil is our top priority.  We need to establish good seedbeds before anything else can happen.  This new tractor will allow us to do that and teach our students in a hands-on way.” 

Johnson and Patterson collaborate to oversee the Fike garden (named for the beloved NC State crop science professor Bill Fike) and is jointly funded by Crop and Soil Sciences and the Agricultural Institute.  The team plans to grow all five of the top commodity crops peanuts, corn, soy, tobacco, and cotton (in small plots) at the new location in 2020.


NC State teaching gardens are now side by side
Teaching gardens unite – Fike Garden left of drive, Agroecology on right

The tractor’s six-month rotating lease is a cost-share agreement with John Deere, Quality Equipment, and the Department of Crop and Soil Sciences. “As stakeholders in our agricultural community, we at Quality Equipment LLC, are proud to support North Carolina State University in preparing today’s youth for tomorrow’s challenges in North Carolina agriculture,” Bryan Dobson, CEO of Quality Equipment said.    

Community Investment

“There is so much potential in these gardens,” Bob Patterson commented, “If we can acquire the resources, we can expose students to so many learning objectives – from responsible land management to equipment calibration and niche crops to supplement farm income. It’s a wonderful opportunity.” 

Now that the two teaching gardens are so close, they will be able to share equipment and facilities to stretch expenses.  “Equipment contributions like this new tractor are really investments in our students – and are greatly appreciated. Our students will benefit from their impact in the gardens for years to come,” Patterson said.  

Those benefits extend beyond the university.  The agroecology farm regularly hosts public school groups studying life science, including a curriculum pilot program with Garner Senior High School.  The Fike Garden attracts university classes from other disciplines such as horticulture, entomology, and plant pathology who relish the opportunity to extend classroom learning.  

Student groups from many departments and schools use the NC State teaching gardens
Working at the Agroecology education farm off Lake Wheeler Road with an ag class from Dr. Michelle Schroeder-Moreno. Photo by Marc Hall

In the fledgling stage, both gardens could benefit from additional farm equipment and storage.  But labor is somewhat easier to come by – the Agroecology Farm hosts public volunteer days twice a month which often draw crowds of 25+ attendees from all walks of life.  

“These teaching gardens may grow on university property and serve university classes, but as a land-grant university, one of our primary objectives is extension – sharing learning with citizens of North Carolina,” Amy Johnson noted.

NC State Agroecology farm workdays draw volunteers from all walks of life
Faculty and staff volunteers weed around crops at the Agroecology Education Farm during a volunteer work day.

Root Zones

NC State teaching gardens allow students to interact with classroom knowledge
Faculty and staff volunteers weed around watermelon vines at the Agroecology Education Farm during a volunteer workday.

The teaching gardens contribute to university life in multiple ways.  The Agroecology Farm provides over 4 tons of produce to university dining each year.  The student-run Agronomy Club and Alpha Zeta Honor Fraternity both will use the gardens for fundraising projects.  Research faculty also have garden access for small-scale test projects outside the larger university research stations. These gardens are truly interdisciplinary root zones. 

Students undoubtedly have the best access.  “The teaching gardens engage students. We clearly see how if a student has project ownership they’ll be more invested.  They are always eager to see how what they have grown is doing,” Patterson said.  

His CS 214 agronomy lab includes a planned individual research project where students detail what they would grow and how they would do it.  With the new garden location, those planned projects are closer to reality.

Student participation fosters deeper attention and garden growth.  One example is a recent university grant for a sustainable orchard forest.  Two undergraduates secured the grant to plant 60 fruit trees on the Agroecology Farm including figs, pawpaws, persimmons, elderberries, and apples (requested by university dining).  “We’re working with the advanced agroecology classes on 2-10 year plans for the farm. It’s exciting to see where it could go!” Reeves said.    

Want More Growth?

You can support our teaching gardens with a financial or in-kind donation by contacting De Teague, CALS executive director.  Or share your time by volunteering at a bi-monthly farm workday.  Both improve student learning experiences and are sincerely appreciated.    

Stay up to date on research innovation and classroom discovery by joining our Friends of Crop and Soil Sciences newsletter.  If you are a student interested in one of our degree programs, or know someone who is, join our personal email series to learn how we might be a fit for you.  It’s all part of how we are growing the future.