Spring has sprung on Rocky Top. Or at least, it has been planted.

As the weather warms, Vols Educating about Growing Garden and Inspiring Environmentalism (V.E.G.G.I.E) has begun planting and tending to their community garden.

Candice Lawton, senior in sustainability and French, started Project V.E.G.G.I.E. two years ago when she and fellow student Neil Brown, senior in chemical engineering, decided to bring a garden to UT's main campus. After approaching administration and Facilities Services, the group received a plot of land beside the Andy Holt parking garage and became an official UT organization.

"Project V.E.G.G.I.E. started as an idea among strangers and grew into a mission among friends," Lawton said. "Co-founding Project V.E.G.G.I.E. has been one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences of my college career, and it helped me discover my interest and passion for sustainability."

Since its first days, Lawton has seen many improvements in student involvement in the garden. Project V.E.G.G.I.E. has also been able to prepare and plan what changes need to be made as the seasons change, resulting in better scheduling abilities, something Lawton said has impacted the number of students that participate.

Justin Leduc, senior in plant science, found Project V.E.G.G.I.E. while "pursuing different environmental-minded" organizations across campus and said the garden project "grew on me right away."

While Leduc enjoys working in the garden and being outdoors, he said his favorite part of work days is "meeting the interested students who come out to help and who show just as much passion for our cause as we in the leadership do."

"It feels great to be connected through the garden to what will become a real community more and more as V.E.G.G.I.E. really comes to maturity," Leduc said.

Project V.E.G.G.I.E. tries to focus on local and regional plants, which have the best chance of thriving, and make the garden as low-maintenance as possible. Leduc stressed there is an "ecological balance that we strive to uphold in an effort to make the garden be self-sustaining."

Aesthetically, the introduction of a raised garden bed layout and the construction of permanent pathways have made the area more pedestrian friendly. Muscadine plants, a variety of grape, were also planted. Perennial plants such as the endangered Cumberland rosemary have been added in addition to plants with a more permanent root structure.

"It's all about making the right choices so that all can enjoy the Project V.E.G.G.I.E. garden indefinitely and have it be sustained for, heck, longer than the buildings on campus if we're lucky," Leduc said. "Natural horticultural landscapes were here prior to even the city, and we as humans are as much a part of them as air is to our breath."

Brown said he sees the garden as an educational opportunity to support both personal health and sustainability, by teaching students how to grow their own food in a noncommittal environment.

"If you go and have a house and have a garden before it, and you go out there and plow up a spot of your yard and plant a garden, the first year is a lot of work," Brown said. "But, if you go out there and don't have any prior experience and you fail, you're going to be completely demoralized. So, we want to give them an intro to it. We don't want to tell them that it is effortless, but we want to show them that it's not impossible or maybe as hard as they think."

Despite greater involvement and improved planning, Lawton said she hopes to see the garden become friendlier for the UT community.

"The garden plan we are following now will definitely enable our community to access and explore the garden more, as there will be larger and more defined paths," Lawton said. "I think incorporating visually pleasing yet functional components will enhance the garden and make it more community-friendly."

To help reach this goal, Project V.E.G.G.I.E. members will have a garden day to create and implement art, animal habitats and planters from recycled and reused materials.

Despite an urban campus and fast-paced student schedules, Leduc said he believes a key component of Project V.E.G.G.I.E.'s mission is reminding students and the rest of the community that nature is accessible and important.

"We are not separate from any of this," Leduc said. "We are so intimately tied into the entire thing – the air and sunlight, the clay and the concrete, as well.

"The garden is a place where you can set aside the stress of everyday life in the city and find a healthy way to reconnect with your roots as a creature that has as much a place in nature as every other living thing."