From the Roots Up

By Adam Vaughan

Drooping dead corn stalks, plump pumpkins, and burnt orange leaves surround Jenny Wunder as she plunges her gloves into a soft bed of dirt. The drizzling rain moistens
the soil as she prepares to plant several kale seeds into the garden.

During the summer, Alton Baker Park’s community garden is filled with gardeners of all different backgrounds. On this autumn day, however, Wunder is the only person in the garden, tending her small plot in peaceful and quiet solitude.

Wunder, her long blonde hair beneath a knitted black beanie, surveys her garden and goes over the plan for the day: mulch the soil, plant some garlic and take home a few rutabagas. She talks about her routine with a laid-back ease, ready to break out into a smile at any moment. Wunder doesn’t have much time to get everything done, though, as she has a midterm to give to the urban farming class she teaches at the University of Oregon.

Wunder, who graduated from UO last spring with a degree in history, became involved with self-sufficient farming when her boyfriend, Keegan Caughlin, told her about that very same urban farming class about two years ago.

“Jenny was excited about the class when I first told her and she was curious about the backpack-loads of fresh exotic looking vegetables that I would bring back from the urban farm,” Caughlin says.

After taking up the class, Wunder noticed her eating habits change drastically as she harvested different vegetables and became more educated about the food system.

“It has been a total 180 from the way I used to eat. The biggest thing was a turn around from fast food to becoming my own personal chef,” Wunder says, crouching beside a patch of kale.

Jenny Wunder proudly displaying one of her rutabaga plants

Even though Wunder’s love and appreciation for gardening flourished only recently, her childhood growing up on a farm in Bend, Oregon, provided the foundation for her passion in agriculture. Her family mainly raised livestock as a hobby on the 10-acre space, but rarely harvesting the animals for meat. Wunder would get home from school every day and run straight to the stables to feed and ride her horses.

Yet her family’s farm lacked a vegetable garden. So while Wunder learned about the responsibility that comes with taking care of horses and cows, she still knew very little about growing fresh vegetables on her own.

“Annual vegetable gardening is something that I’ve never understood until recently. I really had no clue what a tomato plant looked like before I started doing this,” she says.

The Eugene Community Garden at Alton Baker Park is a short walk across a bridge from the university’s urban farm. Wunder’s plot of garden there isn’t quite 10 acres, but it’s a space when she can unwind, immerse herself in the structure of gardening, and find satisfaction in her work. Wunder especially appreciates the physical aspect that comes with gardening.

“With gardening you’re actually being physical with your body and moving,” says Wunder while shoveling a heap of brown leaf mulch into a rusted wheelbarrow. “You’re working out your whole body, and you’re outside in the fresh air, working with the world that we live in and understanding it better.”

Wunder’s dedication to educating others on how to grow healthy food is illustrated through her role as a professor for the urban farming class. Yet Wunder is, in a way, benefiting from the class as much as her students are. She is preparing to experience practice of urban farming on a whole different level, as she plans to move to a small farm 30 minutes outside of Eugene with her boyfriend. The two see themselves working with micro-livestock, such as chickens and turkeys, and experiencing urban farming on a small scale.

Wunder shovels leaf mulch into a wheelbarrow

The rain has picked up now and the dense black clouds above the Eugene Community Garden drench both Wunder and the garden jungle around her. She doesn’t mind the downpour though, and continues to gather the last of her rutabagas.

“Sustainable farming is a lot easier than most people think. If it’s something we’ve been doing as humans for tens of thousands of years, than anybody can do it really,” says Wunder. “I think it’s something we should all know because it’s an important part of growing up and understanding our world better.”

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