Ionnie McNeill, one of the founders of Howard University’s organic garden, showed the Halo Garden to a handful of students this past August on the school’s social service day as a light rain fell.
The garden, started in 2011, provides a place for students to learn about nature and sustainability with many finding a meditative natural environment notwithstanding the garden’s urban location.
McNeill, poised and cheerful, wore loose pants with bright yellow, green and brown colors.
Three students who remained in the garden notwithstanding the rain followed her to a rectangular planting bed where she extracted a fresh beet the size of a golf ball.
After carefully pulling out one of the beet’s roots, she handed it to TC, a new Howard University freshman visiting the garden for the first time.
He nibbled the leafy end of the green strand and handed it back to McNeill who sprayed dirt off of the reddish bulb. TC then took a bite.
“I didn’t think it could taste so good,” TC said, smacking his lips.
Halo Garden is located near the corner of Sherman Avenue and Barry Place, Washington, D.C., near Howard University, a ten block walk to the U Street/African American Civil War Memorial Metro station.
Beets; corn; lettuce; pumpkin; cucumber; green beans; sugar and snap peas; jalapeno and cayenne peppers; onions; garlic; carrots; and herbs, such as thyme, spearmint and peppermint, grow in the shadows of brick buildings and across the street from row houses.
Howard University funds the garden, which is located on school property, Alfonzye Chisholm, Howard University’s Director of Office of Sustainability, said in a telephone interview.
But McNeill and other volunteers come from Wingz of Lyfe and LivingCents, two non-profit groups, which promote holistic living and local organic gardening.
“[The garden] is a university initiative run by students,” Chisholm said.
Howard University started the Halo Garden on Earth Day during 2011. But several events cross pollinated each other during the prior year to facilitate the garden’s creation.
Back in 2010, Howard University’s Office of Sustainability was in its infancy, organic gardens had become a trend and Howard University had just won a $10,000 grant for school improvement from Home Depot in its Retool Your School contest, Chisholm said.
Just as Chisholm began to ponder the feasibility of creating an urban garden at Howard, McNeil, a recently graduated Howard University student and member of the Society for Holistic Living and Meditation, and a then current student affiliated with that group began lobbying Chisholm for an organic garden.
“[T]he goal of having the garden was very deep in my heart, despite have graduated in accounting and the expectation of others,” McNeill said.
“My agenda was to have an [organic] garden on campus to show sustainable living and … that inner city gardening is practical and reasonable,” Chisholm said. “When they came, it was right at the right time.”
Although Chisholm and these early members of Howard’s Society for Holistic Living had a shared vision of growing food in a sustainable way, McNeill and her group also wanted to create a meditative place, one where Society members could experience living balanced and spiritually fulfilling lives.
After almost a year of intermittent discussion with Howard’s Department of Physical Facilities Management, Chisholm received approval from the University’s Chief Operating Office.
“The idea had some skeptics, but the COO favored it,” Chisholm said.
“If one person benefited in their career…, then it was a worthwhile investment for Howard University,” Chisholm recalled the Deputy Chief Operating Officer, Rayford Davis, saying in 2010.
McNeill and others from the Society for Holistic Living began working on a strategic plan and design for the garden in early 2011. They included a fruit tree orchard, a circle of life with raised planting beds, hidden symbols to promote spiritual well being and an inexpensive greenhouse.
“The garden in and of itself is a meditative space,” McNeill said.
She and the other founding Society for Holistic Living members laid out Halo Garden “similar to the way other cultures lay out Zen gardens with certain symbols placed within the garden, and certain herbs and foods planted to give off aromas and colors that feed your spirit and balance your soul.”
“Everyone who visits the garden at least once…can feel something different, but if you stay long enough you begin to be able to voice what you feel,” McNeill said. “After about an hour and half, students begin to say it feels really peaceful in here — [they] begin to claim certain spots as their own.”
Howard University wasn’t the first school in Washington, D.C. to have an organic garden, but it was the first historically black college and university to have one, Chisholm said.
“If we impact someone’s life…If they learn about sustainability…the garden would [have been] a success… [and] I think we’ve done it,” Chisholm said.
Back in 2010, Chisholm’s main concern was about longevity – what would happen to the garden after McNeill and the other founders graduated.
“I made a personal commitment to Chisholm that I would stay as long as I could,” McNeill said.
According to McNeill, she and the school worked out an arrangement for McNeill to stay and take care of the garden.
In addition to the garden, McNeil operates a small business she has had “since high school teaching kids on investment, either with schools specifically or non-profit partnerships – either teaching kids directly or now…preparing employees to go into the classroom.”
According to McNeill, the garden has provided her with opportunities to work with children from D.C. elementary and middle schools. Within the last four years, the garden has become a “teaching space to learn about science,” McNeill said. She also said she has learned “project management skills.”
“The garden has brought me more than I could ever have imagined,” McNeill said.
“This [was] almost like a new enlightenment for me,” TC said of his first visit to the Halo Garden. The two others standing nearby echoed his description, using words like “blessing,” peace,” “centered” and “relaxed.”
TC and the two other students visiting on social service day this past August are representative of students and alumni that come into the garden and cultivate it, McNeill said. “Not just because we have to plant but because it has such therapeutic qualities.”