Texas A&M University officials made the initial symbolic steps toward the institution's first large-scale teaching garden Friday -- but instead of a traditional groundbreaking ceremony, they planted flowers in front of a crowd of donors and university and community leaders.
Close to 200 people crowded under a large tent outside the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences building to hear remarks from the key players who helped get the project moving, including the garden's lead donors.
The Leach Teaching Gardens, named for lead donors Amy and Tim Leach, will be completed during the first phase of the 27-acre project. The 7-acre teaching gardens will provide hands-on learning opportunities for kindergartners through college students, and will include a pavilion and thematic gardens such as a rain garden, food and fiber field, vegetable beds and a butterfly and bee garden, according to a news release from the university.
Mark Hussey, vice chancellor and dean of the Texas A&M College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, said phase one is expected to cost $12 million, with most of that money coming from donors. It's expected to be finished in the first quarter of 2018.
The teaching gardens are part of a larger project that, when completed, will provide the community with a place to learn about the environment and allow Texas A&M to showcase some of the latest discoveries and technologies coming from its researchers.
Hussey said those could be anything from new vegetable varieties, crop varieties, ways to manage stormwater runoff, nutrient management and pretty much anything that applies to urban landscapes.
"Above everything else, we want it to be open to the community, open to the public and a source of pride -- not only to our college, but for the university and the community as a whole," Hussey said.
He said he hopes to work with school districts and youth groups such as 4-H and Junior Master Gardeners to give kids a unique opportunity for hands-on learning. The student-run Howdy Farm will also have a space for their gardens on the site, and Hussey said many student groups will be tied to it when it's complete.
Texas A&M System Regent Phil Adams said the gardens will address a challenge that he heard from his father, a lifelong farmer and ag teacher, that you can't teach agriculture from books alone.
"It will get dirt under the fingernails of our students, but also new insights into their minds," Adams said.
Doug Welsh, retired A&M professor and Extension horticulturist emeritus, has overseen the project since almost the beginning. He said in a news release that the goal with the project -- dubbed The Gardens -- is to "share life-changing information and resources with the community at large" in the spirit of Normal Borlaug, the late Nobel Peace Prize laureate and father of the Green Revolution. Borlaug played a key role in fighting world hunger while he was a professor at Texas A&M and is credited with saving more lives than anyone in history.
Discussions began on The Gardens in 2011. The initial concept was developed by students in the A&M Department of Landscape Architecture and Urban Planning, and many of their ideas remain today, Hussey said. Rhotenberry Wellen Architects in Midland and White Oak Studio in Houston have been hired as the building and landscape architects.
Hussey said hundreds of people have been involved in the project since the beginning. Former students, nursery and landscape businesses, faculty leadership from the West Campus colleges, the 12th Man Foundation, George Bush Presidential Library Foundation and the College of Architecture have all been involved at some point, Hussey said.
"This project has always been a dream to be bigger than agriculture," Hussey said. "It really is a Texas A&M and community opportunity and we wanted it to be something that truly supports Bryan-College Station and Texas A&M University."