The Umbra Institute Community Garden Project at Orto Sole keeps flourishing. In particular, one of the Program trainees, Katie Kurtz, provided a priceless and fundamental contribution to the Orto Sole Project, staying with us a bit longer than the rest of the team. Enjoy her blog about her experience in Perugia and at the Umbra Institute!
Hi everyone! Katie here! This summer I’ve worked as an intern in Orto Sole, The Umbra Institute’s school garden. I’ve helped with everything from growing tomatoes to planning activities for the local middle school. As the summer wraps up, you might be wondering, how did the “season premier” of Orto Sole go for the summer?
The beginning of the summer was mostly spent on physical projects, turning the overgrown, terraced plot of land into a functioning garden. A typical workday started at 9am with the fundamentals of gardening: weeding and watering. This year we attempted many annual crops throughout several different garden beds, so we were constantly battling the weeds that crept through our mulch. In June, most of my projects were physical – we’d spend several days fixing wooden stairs throughout the garden, clearing new raised beds for next summer, staking and pruning tomato plants, and clearing bushes from the archways located at the top of our garden. One archway is large enough to become an outdoor classroom, so we worked to clear the overgrown bushes from its entrance, flatten the ground, remove large pieces of trash, and plan for this new didactic space.
Another unique part of June was our relationship with TAMAT, a local organization working to integrate immigrants in to the Perugian community. Each workday several immigrants would join us in the garden, working alongside us on the projects for the day. Working with these immigrants was such a powerful experience for all of us interns – just like us, these immigrants were foreigners and had varying levels of Italian. Despite being from different backgrounds, our work in the garden acted as a bridge and allowed us to form relationships in such meaningful ways.
Several days a week we headed over to Orto San Pietro, a community garden connected to the Agriculture Department at the University of Perugia. Working alongside agriculture students, professors, and community members participating in the urban garden, we cleared beds, pruned tomato plants, built compost bins, and worked to repair their garden after a hailstorm came through and damaged many of the plants. My work at San Pietro has taught me valuable skills such as how to design and run a drip irrigation system, how to care for plants such as beans and tomatoes, and the best way to prepare for a winter garden. We’ve been able to transfer these skills back to Orto Sole, helping us think strategically about how to transition our garden into the fall and winter, and what adjustments we should make for next year to improve our efficiency and output.
Come July, the other 4 interns headed back to the United States and I’ve stayed in Perugia to maintain the garden while turning most of my energy to the academic side of Orto Sole. The beauty of this space is its proximity to various communities within Perugia, allowing The Umbra Institute to interact with many groups of people and create a didactic space that also improves community engagement. I’ve mostly worked on two large projects: an environmental education curriculum and strategic planning for the following year. The Umbra Institute is working to integrate a community engagement component into their Italian classes, so I developed a set of Italian-English language exchange lessons using Orto Sole. These lessons are geared towards a local middle school and use the garden as the interactive space for students to practice vocabulary. I’ve also worked to plan for upcoming projects with Orto Sole, helping record observations from this summer and necessary adjustments for further iterations of Orto Sole’s summer garden. I’ve catalogued the annuals we grew this year: noting which worked well, potential ideas for new varieties, and how to maximize our growth to effort ratio for the upcoming summers. I’ve also worked on a nectary calendar, allowing us to understand when the plants we have bloom and where we can add perennials to improve our garden from a pollination standpoint. This planning allows us to effectively develop projects for potential volunteering opportunities, next year’s internship, and academic partnerships with Umbra Institute classes. It has been exciting thinking about the potential for the garden over the next 5-10 years!
Orto Sole has been so much more than just an office for me this summer. It has been a place of community, a place to escape the noise of the city, and a place to reflect and get to know myself better than before. Spending several days a week working on simple projects, such as weeding a flower bed or pruning plants, created space to build friendships, slow down, and connect to the earth in a tangible and valuable way. Having such a beautiful space within the historic city center allows Umbra students and Perugian residents alike to take a moment to reflect, be in community, and step beyond traditional boundaries that can limit genuine connections from forming with people from all around the world.
While Orto Sole has many years ahead of it to become a fully developed, integrated, and flourishing community garden, this first summer of work was a tremendous success. The space physically resembles a cared-for garden, something one could not say in the middle of May. Orto Sole hosted several events for the Umbra Institute’s Intensive Italian program, such as the 4th of July barbecue and Italian music night, already integrating the space into every Umbra student’s time in Perugia. We’ve had a successful harvest of lettuce, tomatoes, basil, zucchini, cherries, figs, peas, swiss chard, and many other fruits and vegetables, paving the way for the vegetables planted next year and our long-term plans. I have been so lucky to call Perugia home this summer and be a part of Orto Sole’s “season premier,” and I can’t wait to come back and see the growth of the garden as the seasons go by!