“We’re all learners”: Interview with Kalysta, Garden Leader For The Edible Campus Project

Friday 24 May 2024

Kalysta smiles at me as I set up the camera for an interview, shielding her eyes from the sun with a hand of earth-ringed nails. Alongside Leila, another summer intern for transition, I’ve spent the last hour helping her in the community garden at the Observatory, doing everything from hand weeding to shovelling decomposing wood chips on a plot of mushrooms.

The mushrooms are a new initiative, a passion project of hers. They unexpectedly come in crumbly orange bricks- oat mixed with mycelium, Kalysta tells me- which we generously sprinkle over old wood pallets arranged in the shade. We carefully layer wood chips and the crushed mushroom mixture on top of each other. She tells us that at five o’clock she’s going to go to Taste, a local coffeeshop, and collect their used coffee grounds. Mushrooms apparently love them. We then start snapping planks of unused wood into smaller pieces, arranging them on top of the mushrooms like a little ceiling over their heads.

planting mushrooms, usta sustainability, mushroom planting, Edible Campus

From left to right: the mushroom plot with the mycelium-infused oat brick, shovelling decomposing wood chips on top, and then covering the plot with old wood

After that’s done, Kalysta directs Leila and I to some weeding. She instructs us to only weed in a little circle around the onion and beetroot plants. The gardeners are trying to avoid monocultures in the vegetable beds, prioritising it over the aesthetics of pure brown earth on the patch. The only plants that should be removed are the necessary ones: those which threaten to compete with the vegetable being grown.

As we weed, I come across paper plates dotted around the soil. I make a move to remove one of them, thinking that it’s litter, but I’m quickly stopped. Apparently, they circle the beetroot seedlings as a weed-prevention mechanism. “Extremely high tech” Kalysta says wryly.

A beetroot seedling with a weed-prevention ring

About ten minutes later, I panic when as I weed the other end of the bed. I’ve yanked out a plant with a bulbous root growing in it. Kalysta laughs as I apologise. It’s okay. It’s not the onions or the beetroots that are meant to be growing, but rather a potato. I’d never heard of potatoes being invasive before- and given that two of my uncles farm potatoes, that’s quite a surprise. But according to Kalsyta they always seem to weasel their way into unexpected places in the garden, so perhaps the soil by the Observatory has something special in it that turns the humble potato into a prototype for the Day of the Triffids.

Leila heads back to the office, and we have our interview as the sun slowly creeps away from the garden.

After we finish, I mention that I enjoy mint, and that when I was in the community garden in St Mary’s College earlier in the afternoon, I could smell its sweetness everywhere. I tell her what the volunteers there told me: that they planted two pots of mint a few years ago, and that they broke and burst open and overtook the rest of the garden. She laughs and says she’s not surprised, before steering me towards the mint growing in her garden, a much smaller and neater patch than at St Mary’s. She tells me to take some, explaining that everyone who helps out shares in the harvest. All the gardeners aim to time their harvests around when undergraduates are in St Andrews, hoping to attract volunteers with the incentive of free food and then convince them to maintain beds and plant seeds for the next year. My fresh mint tea that I drink after dinner that evening tastes even better having seen how it was grown.

To get involved in the Edible Campus Project, which incentivises student gardeners like Kalysta to grow vegetables, check out the Transition Events Page, email [email protected], or drop in on Kalysta’s sessions from 2-4 on a Wednesday afternoon at the James Gregory Telescope (the Observatory).

Written by Georgina Parbrook


How long have you been working at the community garden?

I’ve been working at the community garden since this Fall, and I took it over about two months ago.

What is Edible Campus?

Edible Campus is Transition’s project of community gardens across campus. I can’t give exact numbers for how many gardens there are, but there’s loads: there’s one at Uni Hall, this one here [at the Observatory] is the largest, St Mary’s is a really popular one, Dean’s Court, Powell Hall… I mean they’re really all around campus.

What’s your favourite project you’ve undertaken in this garden so far?

I’m really excited about these mushrooms. We’ll see how they turn out, but I’ve always wanted to grow mushrooms.

One thing that I think is really fun about the Edible Campus gardens is that it’s room for students to experiment. For people who want to grow a specific thing and haven’t had a chance to, Edible Campus is really good about supplying them with the tools to grow stuff that they’re interested in growing. Ali Macleod is phenomenal resource and a lovely person to chat to. This was the project that I really wanted to undertake and I’m excited to see how it goes.

What would you say to anyone looking forward to volunteering here but who aren’t that sure of their gardening skills?

I guess the first thing that I’d say is that we’re all learners, the greatest teacher- well, Ali might be the greatest teacher! But the second greatest teacher would really just be experimentation and seeing how things go, you know? You really can’t overstate trial and error, but there’s also people here to talk things through with and to provide you with skills. I have some experience gardening and I’m happy to share that as much as I can!

Why do you love gardening so much and what do you feel is the purpose of your work here?

I think that for me, there’s a really multi-layered answer to that question. I mean, I think it does really come from love. I grew up gardening, me and my Mum would garden together. It was something that we shared, and it’s always been something that I really enjoyed. There is just kind of that base-level love.

I would say that there’s also a lot of sustainability concerns, and I think that as we go forward into the future the question of how to do sustainable gardening is something that we maybe all need to be a little more involved with, and I think we need more integration with our food systems.

One of the most valuable things that the Edible Campus gardens can offer, whether you come one time or you come every week, is they show you what it looks like for food to grow and they provide you that degree of connection with food systems.

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