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Ants in your plants

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On a cloudy Monday afternoon, Martha Huerta plucked a snail off a plant leaf and tossed it over the fence.

“I hate insects. It doesn’t make sense why I come here,” she said.

Huerta, a fourth-year criminology, law and society and psychological science double major, was on her routine shift at the Ants in Your Plants (AIYP) Garden, a 44-plot community garden located in Arroyo Vista student housing. Huerta’s tasks included weeding the dirt paths and garden beds and planting squash, bean and corn seeds. And yes, looking for pests and insects.

According to Garden Commissioner Rodolfo Alcalá-Dávalos, AIYP was founded in 2011 and is now a collaboration between ASUCI, housed under the Office of the Internal Vice President, the Sustainability Resource Center and Arroyo Vista. Huerta is one of eight interns who take care of the garden on a regular basis.

The garden is currently growing kale and lettuce, but the plot content is diverse — everything from broccoli to California poppy to lavender. In plot 5, Huerta is growing Mexican sunflowers.

Photo by Chrissy Park / Staff
The AIYP community garden located in Arroyo Vista.

Although Huerta is a first-time Garden Commission intern, her relationship with gardening dates back to childhood. She grew up in the High Desert in a Hispanic household with parents who made gardening look easy.

“They took what they learned from their home countries and brought it here to the U.S. and introduced it to me,” Huerta said, adding that her parents have a “green thumb.”

When she was a third-year student, Huerta applied for the intern role after Alcalá-Dávalos invited her to join him on a shift. In her current position, she oversees volunteer shifts each week, runs booths on campus and hosts events in the garden. Huerta’s favorite memory is of a Halloween scavenger hunt held in the fall 2023 quarter, during which she hid items in the shed and greenhouse — and even in the garden beds.

Huerta described AIYP as a way to meet new people while also making a positive difference.

“It makes me feel good that I’m able to do work that impacts the UCI community substantially and in a positive way. I get a lot of internal joy from doing that,” she said. “It has helped me mentally as well. It’s very relaxing, and I feel like it helps me de-stress.”

She also noted that much of the garden’s produce helps Anteaters in need. Alcalá-Dávalos emphasized that the garden has harvested over 700 pounds of produce since the summer of 2023, around 60% of which went to UCI’s Basic Needs Center. The rest went to garden volunteers or was not reported.

“A lot of students here at UCI face insecurity — whether it be housing or food — and they don’t have a lot of access to resources,” Huerta said. “I love the fact that [the garden] has a purpose, that I can help others as well.”

Andrea Mora, director of the Basic Needs Center, said that the food pantry has received donations from the garden since 2018.

“The partnership has allowed multiple generations of food-equity-minded students to participate in local sustainability and food sovereignty efforts,” Mora wrote in an email to New University. “Our pantry visitors enjoy the locally grown produce and learn about these efforts and opportunities to get involved.”

Photo by Chrissy Park / Staff
The garden’s greenhouse is set to 76.6 degrees Fahrenheit.

Next year, Huerta plans to be a volunteer for the garden as she prepares for a career in law or law enforcement. The garden’s future plans include establishing hydroponics towers in the greenhouse and recruiting more Planteaters — UCI community members who consistently participate in the garden’s volunteering shifts and events.

And Huerta, pointing out that her last name means “orchard” in Spanish, is hoping for a cherry tree. In the meantime, she will watch her sunflowers bloom.

Chrissy Park is a Campus News Staff Writer. She can be reached at chrip10@uci.edu.

Edited by Karen Wang and Jaheem Conley