He and Ashley Rose are the two students tasked with the upkeep and harvesting of UNCG’s Community Gardens during the summer. The gardens, located near McIver Deck, are a collection of fifty plots that can be rented by student organizations, staff and faculty to grow edible plants. Together, Touprong and Rose maintain fifteen of these plots, cultivating a wide variety of vegetables and herbs.
“It can be tedious,” Rose says. “Coming out here and pulling weeds, and it gets so hot, but it’s a way to escape a bit, I guess. And if you’re out here with somebody, you can talk to them, and it’s a good bonding with people sort of thing, and I think that part of our mission is to get people out here and to get people together, and get them talking about life, about issues, whatever, while they’re working.”
Food that is harvested from the garden is often donated, but this summer the harvest has been small, so Rose and Touprong take the food they’ve grown home, cook it and share it with friends and family.
Touprong, a first generation American, finds the farming and cooking a fruitful way of staying connected to the communal values of his Montagnard family.
“I came from Vietnam, and farming and growing your own things and having livestock is a core value of our culture. That’s just how we live life . . . So having food that comes from the garden, and growing it yourself, really hits home with me in a way. It’s something that you really treasure, that I really treasure. It was the way of life for us.”
Not just tasty, the food is a way for Rose and Touprong to engage with those around them. When Touprong’s family sits down to a home-cooked dinner, it brings them closer together. Rose’s inclusion in these meals has strengthened her bond with Touprong, and exposed her to the cultural traditions of his heritage.
This sense of community doesn’t stop with the family.
“This connects to everything,” Rose says. “I know UNCG stresses service, and this is an act of service. When we donate to charity, or to food pantries, or whatever it is, it brings in that service aspect. I think it ties into a lot of UNCG’s values like respect, and honor, and integrity. Again, just having that community. When we have our garden club meetings, it’s open to anybody, and everybody comes and kinda feels just comfortable and at home. We just come to each other with respect and honesty.”
On a larger scale, Rose describes how her three years at the gardens have informed her perspective on the wider world. In particular, she has become much more aware of the human element of food production. She recognizes that at some point all food is being gathered and made by real people with real struggles, and through her farming relates to and empathizes with them.
Although a newcomer, Touprong’s perspective has been affected by his work at the gardens already. He’s become much more aware of the environment – when a sudden heat wave can destroy your crops, you have to be. Through the careful engagement farming requires, he’s developed a stronger connection with his surroundings and with the natural world.
Club co-advisor Dr. Susan Andreatta has seen the way gardening strengthens community many times over the nine years she’s been supervising UNCG Gardens with Guy Sanders.
“The students enjoy the camaraderie they have fostered in the garden,” she says, “And it extends into other areas of their lives while at UNCG. I hear about having plants in their rooms, cooking with herbs they grow, making mint tea or salsa with cilantro and much more.”
Students keep the experience with them after graduation, too. According to Dr. Andreatta, a number of gardening alumni have gone on to garden in their communities. Some have even purchased farms of their own.
Clearly there is a lot to learn from gardening. Both Rose and Touprong value the lessons learned from their time at UNCG Gardens. It’s a distinctly rewarding experience.
“It teaches you how to give,” Rose says. “It teaches you how to nurture something, and when you do that you get love in return.”
By Avery Campbell