The greenest classroom at ACU Agricultural and Environmental Sciences students build sustainable garden

Catherine Longest sits by wicking beds in front of the Agricultural and Environmental Sciences lab housed on Campus Court.

The greenest classroom on campus sits between the parking lots and Bermuda lawns on the west side of Campus Court. Students in the Agricultural and Environmental Sciences Department have created sustainable gardens in the front yard of their laboratory as part of their coursework. Featuring water catchment systems, a rain bed, a raised bed garden and several wicking beds, the 2-year-old garden is self-sustaining and compatible with the West Texas environment.

Catherine Longest (’17), wildlife resource management major from Shawnee, Okla., helped plant the gardens. Before she came to ACU, Longest didn’t know what a water catchment system was. Now she has the skills to actually build one and to plant gardens that conserve water.

Billy Kniffen (’71), adjunct instructor and water conservation expert, started the garden last year as a way to give students more hands-on experience. Students divide into groups and learn how to plant different types of beds. Once each bed is completed, the groups teach the other groups what they learned.

“This allows students to get an idea of other things they can use with their major and do something that’s a valuable thing for society,” Longest said.

Making the most of every drop

The water catchment system involves rain barrels situated beneath the gutters on the side of the lab building. Originally built from trashcans, the barrels are covered with plastic or wood so they look more appealing. A small filter on top of the barrels keeps leaves and large objects from getting in. Rainwater remains stored in the barrels and flows through pipes that run into the different plant beds.

Near the catchment system is a rain garden. The rain garden is positioned on a lip of soil that catches water runoff from the roof. Plants that need more water are positioned near the bottom of the lip. Longest said tall grasses are better for conserving water.

“We have a Bermuda lawn right there, and when the rain hits it, the grass doesn’t protect the soil,” Longest said. “But big grasses, tall grasses, they help protect the soil from the rain. So when the rain falls it hits the grass and then soaks into the ground.”

A semicircle of plants form a raised bed garden near the middle of the yard. Aerated soil about a foot high holds onions and other vegetables. Running through the raised bed is a drip line, which consists of tubing with holes every few inches to release water.

“It’s also a very pretty design, and what’s nice about a lot of this gardening is it can be very beautiful,” Longest said. “Even though it’s not a Bermuda lawn, it’s better for the environment.”

Wicking beds for West Texas

The yard also features several boxed gardens called wicking beds. These beds have piping and cloth beneath the soil. Rainwater from the catchment system flows into the pipe and allows the plants to draw water from the cloth and the soil.

“Especially in West Texas, in a place that doesn’t receive a lot of rain, being conscientious of how much water you use is very important,” Longest said. “By using rainwater, it allows more water to go back into the earth instead of becoming runoff or being evaporated.”

In the backyard of the laboratory, students built a garden geared for people with disabilities. Planted with lettuce, tomatoes and herbs, this garden sits on a wooden cart and has its own water catchment system. Longest said gardens like this are good for nursing homes or for people in wheelchairs.

“They still need the outdoors, something they can experience and do hands-on,” Longest said. “They can be in their wheelchair and still garden.”

Other projects include a keyhole garden and composting bed for worms. Through these gardens, agricultural and environmental sciences majors are able to learn about sustainability and build skills while helping the environment.

“The way we’re gardening is actually helping the earth,” Longest said.