Here on my Chinese campus, it feels like we are on the cusp of summer. Maybe that’s an exaggeration, but flowers have been blooming for a month, so it seems like spring has peaked, though by the calendar, we are not even halfway through. We had a long stretch of cold, rainy weather, but now we need a sweater in the morning and short sleeves in the afternoon. It was 59 degrees when I woke up, and it will be 85 degrees by the end of the day.

Last month, we got the call for the Eco Planting in our campus. The Eco Club was formerly known as the Compost Club, but the students decided they wanted to branch out to other ecological projects, like documenting how many species of birds we can find in our campus. (Last year, they identified 46 distinct species and made a catalogue of them.)

In the past year, we finessed the production of compost, and now we needed to do something with it. Students and teachers would work together to plant a farm. We had already voted on the crops (cucumber, winter melon, string bean, okra, tomatoes and corn were the choices). These were to be planted next to the hospital on the north side of campus, in long, rectangular plots with grass paths between them and a well-established border of some tall plants with round leaves. I looked closely, and it was blooming — white flowers streaked with purple, some kind of legume by the looks of it. I asked someone who didn’t know the English name — some kind of broad bean, very delicious, he said. I can’t wait for harvest.

Saturday was the appointed day, and the sun had pulled the curtain on the dreary, wet weather we’ve been having. The sky was about as blue as it gets here, with a few wispy clouds — a perfect day for gardening. I had to arrive late. I was still meeting with students in my office when the planting commenced.

I rode my bike across campus to find a large crowd gathered at the plots and already working together. I was quickly drafted to join the compost brigade. With a handful of students, I walked over to where some ripe compost was sequestered, and we dug it into large containers. I helped carry it back to the garden, where students dug a trowel of compost into holes for each seed or plant. Other students came with buckets of water to pour along the planted rows. Many hands make light work, and soon there was nothing to do but document our labor. I was happy to see so many of my students, and we had many photo ops. Our WeChat group posted pictures of students, smiling and throwing peace signs, on either side of the rows of seedlings.

I ride out to check on our garden every few days. It’s going well, and if you look closely, you can see evidence of our students’ stewardship, a wet ring around each tomato plant where someone carried water to quench the dry soil. Students post photos of the progress, or of special projects, like placing bamboo poles to support the tomatoes. One student even built a long structure of bamboo (she called it a “shelf,” though it looked more like an A-frame) to support the growing cucumbers and winter melons.

The other day, I was surprised to see a couple of dogs emerge from the weeds on the east side of the garden. One looked almost wild, like maybe he was part coyote. The other had a long body and short legs, but a very long and curly pelt, like a sheep. I posted a picture to our group chat, and one student said he had seen them before and that they can easily slip through the campus gates. They seemed harmless, though they did not come to my calls.

Yesterday, I checked on the hedge of bean plants, and sure enough, though flowers still bloomed at the top, large pods of beans grew at the bottom of each plant. They are as big as lupini beans, and maybe they are the same. I think the garden is a community garden, but still, I’ll check with someone before I harvest a handful to take home to try.

Last week, on my way to breakfast, I saw two of the housekeepers pulling the dark berries (Osmanthus — or fragrant tea olives) from the trees in the courtyard into a basket. I stopped to ask (in English with plenty of miming) whether these were good to eat, but one pointed at my coffee mug, and I think they were telling me it was good for tea. I knew the flowers make good tea, but I wasn’t sure about the berries. Now I just need to find someone to explain further to me before the trees drop all their olives on the ground.

Plant in beauty; harvest in peace;

blessed be.

Mary Lucille Hays teaches writing at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and Zhejiang University in Haining, China. If you’re missing your weekly dose of Letters from Birdland in The News-Gazette, you can still read them every week in the Piatt County Journal-Republican. Consider subscribing to support your small-town newspaper. You can see photos of her travels on Instagram

(@BirdlandLetters). Mary can be reached at or via snail mail care of the Journal-Republican, 118 E. Washington St., Monticello, IL 81856.