An insider’s look at Wash. U.’s organic garden

Kastyn Matheny | Student Life

The Burning Kumquat, located on the South 40, is a student-run garden that members say yields about 20 different types of vegetables each year.

What exactly is a burning kumquat? It’s not a street-term for low-grade PCP, nor is it literally a burning fruit.

According to senior Terry Main, one of the club’s current co-presidents, the Burning Kumquat “is an entirely student-run garden that we use to teach ourselves how to grow food and about the St. Louis food industry.”

Located on the South 40, the Burning Kumquat, a student-run urban garden, is more than just a way for students to get their hands dirty. It is a way to interact with the Wash. U. student body and the St. Louis community at large through one of the most essential resources: food.

A group of Wash. U. students founded the Burning Kumquat in 2007; however, accounts of its initial founding and the group’s fanciful name differ. According to senior Madeleine Däpp, the Burning Kumquat’s former co-president in charge of social events (in Burning Kumquat lingo, “the Moon”) and current webmaster, the Burning Kumquat’s creation myth rivals that of some of the world’s major civilizations.

Kastyn Matheny | Student Life

Däpp described the myth as such: A dragon appeared, soaring through the heavens above Wash. U.’s campus. Suddenly, it died, and its heart, a burning kumquat, fell to rest on a plot of land on the Wash. U. campus. By and by, some Wash. U. students came upon the kumquat and duly dubbed the plot of land “the Burning Kumquat.” Gardening commenced, and the tradition has been carried on to this day.

Alternatively, as a rationalist Wash. U. student, unimpressed by tales of dragons and blazing fruit, you could accept a more logical, though no less appealing, account. The founders took some college courses together that made them reflect on the origins of their food, so they decided to pitch the idea of an on-campus garden at Idea Bounce, hosted by the Student Sustainability Fund. The project won approval for funding and the project became a reality. One of the original founders had attended the Burning Man Festival (without encountering any apocryphal lizards) and, according to Däpp, “just liked the way [Burning Kumquat] sounded.”

Dragons or no dragons, the plot of land has developed into a productive garden, yielding approximately 20 different types of vegetables per year. Members cultivate everything from green beans to five different types of tomatoes. The most common way students get involved with the club is through workdays at the farm, usually held on Saturdays. Typical workday activities involve watering, weeding and, depending on the season, planting. No farming experience is required for participation.

Between 15 and 20 individuals are heavily involved in the club’s governing body at any point in time, though many more show up for workdays and other events, such as the annual Hoedown. Even non-members reap the benefits of the garden. While you may have never watered a bean plant or picked a leaf of lettuce, there is a very good chance you have tasted the literal fruits (or veggies) of the garden’s labor. The Burning Kumquat hosts weekly on-campus farmers markets in addition to selling a portion of its produce to Bon Appètit.

“You’re gonna see us at the salad bar,” Däpp said. “We also sell micro greens to Ibby’s.”

Kastyn Matheny | Student Life

The Burning Kumquat is more than just a garden and the student group that cultivates it; it’s a group of unique, self-driven individuals who are invested in local food issues and contributing to the St. Louis experience in general. While leaving campus is not an explicit requirement of membership, many members go out of their ways to participate in the St. Louis community.

One Burning Kumquat project involves selling produce at reduced rates at the North City Farmer’s market. Members also attend workshops put on by Gateway Greening (which educates St. Louisians about urban agriculture and sponsors garden projects) and Schlafly Bottleworks, and events like the annual Halloween Bike Farm Tour. Apart from contributing to work in the garden, members of the Burning Kumquat see the club as a framework for exploring their personal interests in local food-related issues and events.

“Everyone does more or less their own thing. It’s just, there are a lot of people doing things that you figure out what you’re personally interested in,” Main said.

This exploratory do-it-yourself ethos has been present from the garden’s inception. Many of the founders were self-taught, learning about gardening and farming from reading and interacting with experts, both from Wash. U. and the surrounding communities.

So what do members get out of the Burning Kumquat experience?

“The most obvious thing is that I get free produce,” Main said. “But also I think it’s really great that the Burning Kumquat makes me feel like a participant in the St. Louis community, so I don’t feel like I’m an onlooker…I get to actively participate.”

Attention, those of you who eat your veggies and like to burst the Wash. U. bubble: this might be the place for you.