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A nourishing nest for Hopkins and Baltimore

The Blue Jay's Perch community garden takes root near Homewood with a little boost from philanthropy
Posted August 10, 2017
  • A June "Eco-Smart Outing" drew dozens to help water, weed, and harvest early produce at the Blue Jay's Perch community garden.

  • Blue Jay's Perch produces about 500 pounds of food annually, and about 200 pounds are donated to local agencies.

  • Located on Hopkins' Eastern Campus, Blue Jay's Perch is open to faculty, staff, students, and the local community.

  • The garden, which is funded largely through philanthropy, has attracted an average of more than 150 unique visitors in recent years.

Noemie "Nemo" Keller, Engr '17, chose to attend Hopkins for its sterling academic reputation, of course, but the university offered another unique draw: a 4,000-square-foot plot of land, about a mile east of the Homewood campus, called the Blue Jay's Perch.

The garden, which is open to the Hopkins community and its surrounding neighborhoods, had just launched when Keller attended SoHop, the spring orientation weekends for admitted students. Its founders had applied for a Diversity Innovation Grant — an award designed to advance programs that foster civility, respect, diversity, and inclusion at Hopkins — to help raise Blue Jay's Perch's profile. The grant came through after those students graduated and handed the garden's reins to Keller. She used the funding to help launch the first Spring Garden Kickoff Party, a now-annual picnic that's contributed to a growing interest in the urban garden among faculty, staff, students, and local citizens.

Keller received a Spirit of Sustainability Award during the Hopkins Office of Sustainability's annual Green Blue Jay Awards Ceremony in April for her dedication to Blue Jay's Perch over the past four years. She spoke with Rising about how the Diversity Innovation Grant — which is supported in part by gifts made to Hopkins' Diversity Leadership Council — was a key part of the garden's early success.

What is the Spring Garden Kickoff Party, and how did the grant help start it?

We got the grant in the spring of 2014, and by then the garden had been around for a couple of years. But it's hard to get the Hopkins community to know about something that's relatively small and removed from campus. That initial influx of money helped us create something that people would go out of their way to attend. It's one thing to show people pictures of the garden at an event, but it's another to have them sit at a picnic table, eating food you've grown just a few steps away — to see, in person, how urban agriculture can work.

How has the party been successful in recruiting volunteers?

When we hold the event — in early May, over the pre-exam reading period — we've usually got enough planted so people have a feel for what we're doing, and we hope that they'll be excited enough to stay involved throughout the summer, until we have our closing event, a potluck dinner at someone's house in the fall. We've had between 60 and 80 people attend the annual kickoff party each year, and we average about 150 unique visitors to the garden a year. That kickoff event is important in getting people talking about the garden, and getting us excited.

How does Blue Jay's Perch help connect Hopkins community and Baltimore?

It's one of those programs that provides an overwhelmingly positive experience and correlation with Hopkins. We grow about 500 pounds of food a year, and about 200 pounds of that is donated to various community kitchens and shelters — so we're growing and literally feeding our community with healthy food, which feels great. The garden also brings people together in a nonpolitical, non-stressful environment where they can get to know each other and talk. This is an example of Hopkins people showing they want to invest in our community with no strings attached.

Why was Blue Jay's Perch such an important part of your Hopkins experience?

I majored in biomedical engineering, which is extremely hard — knowing I had plans to go to the garden almost every weekend helped me stay sane, and helped me meet new people. For example, one of our partners is Marian House — a transitional home for women who are coming out of tough situations, including physical and sexual abuse as well as other challenges that left them homeless and unemployed. To meet some of these women at the garden, or over a potluck dinner, and to hear about their experiences helped me get to know them on a personal level. It helped me realize I had preconceived notions about some parts of our society that I shouldn't have — and that changed me for the better.