Bring together a diverse mix of commuter college students to plant a vegetable garden on campus. Have them work shoulder to shoulder -- tending the plot and reflecting on the experience -- and see what grows.

A pair of psychology professors made that pitch for a campus garden, predicting that it would nourish minds as well as bodies. They convinced presidents from Inver Hills Community College and Metropolitan State University the idea could take root.

And this fall, students and faculty from the partnering colleges have harvested more than 1,300 pounds of fresh vegetables from the first "interdisciplinary vegetable garden" on the Inver Hills campus.

The produce is donated to local food shelves. With tomatoes, pumpkins and peppers still ripening in the field, they expect that total to grow.

In October, students and staff will plant 50 apple trees next to the campus garden. The orchard's yield also will go to local food shelves and will provide more hands-on learning for students.

"You are sowing seeds in the mind and sowing seeds in the soil," explained Barbara Curchack, psychology professor at Inver Hills.

It's also about exposing students to community outreach.

"If we're bringing community together and making a dent in hunger, we're feeling good," Curchack said.

Curchack and Metro State psychology professor August Hoffman have shepherded the project from conception to harvest. Dozens of students across several disciplines have worked in the garden to complete course work.

This isn't Hoffman's first experience blending academics with agriculture. As a professor at Compton Community College in southern California, Hoffman helped establish a 200-tree citrus orchard on campus. "The students really loved it," Hoffman said.

The community gardening also tied into his research. Hoffman studied how community gardens improve ethnic and race relations in diverse populations.

"When communities provide opportunities for people to work side by side for a common good, their attitudes for each other significantly improve," Hoffman said. "Negative ethnic and religious stereotypes decline."

These types of face-to-face interactions are critically important as people rely more on technology to communicate, he said. Technology can polarize, he said.

"We can't forget the art of human interaction," Hoffman said.

Inver Hills President Tim Wynes said his school has invested about $20,000 in the garden project, including creating an outdoor classroom.

The professors have received $5,000 in additional funding from outside grants. The nonprofit Fruit Trees USA is donating the apple trees.

"I am one generation removed from the farm. I see a lot of value in the experience of doing this kind of hands-on work combined with an academic rigor," Wynes said. "It's a great community service and a real-life learning lab."

Preparing for an orchard

It's a sunny morning in early September. The two professors and a group of students are pruning and watering in the garden and preparing for the apple trees.

"We're in the process of prepping, putting in a fence because the deer nibble," said Hoffman. He shows students how to dig the holes for the posts and till a section of the garden with a pickax. They use only hand tools this morning.

"Things are more organic this way. We don't use a three-point auger. We just use muscle," Hoffman said with a smile.

Hoffman requires his Metro State psychology students to complete 10 hours of community service or write a research paper. He says most choose time in the garden.

Inver Hills students spend time in the garden as part of Curchack's life-span-development class. Students get their hands dirty planting, pruning and harvesting. Then they journal about the experience and make connections between course work and their interactions in the field.

Inver Hills student Misha Liang and her 8-year-old son, Brandon, have worked in the garden several times this growing season. Liang is earning credits toward a second degree in social work. The Liangs have helped plant, harvest and drop food off at a local food shelf.

She said the hands-on service learning component to her online psychology course was surprising and has been rewarding.

"I did take psychology at the U [University of Minnesota]. It was a 600-person lecture. This is a lot different and more personal," Liang said.

Shannon Prather is a Twin Cities freelance writer.