ALLENWOOD - With a sea of reds and greens sprouting up, a previously unused Pennsylvania College of Technology greenhouse has the look of a traditional gardening area at first glance. But upon further inspection, tubes pumping a water and nutrient mixture to rows of plants in plastic containers give a very different impression.
The new Campus Community Garden, housed at the college's Schneebeli Earth Science Center, has the capability to produce 10,000 heads of lettuce and gives students and staff a variety of fresh, locally grown produce on campus.
The produce, however, isn't being grown in a traditional soil-based garden, but in a hydroculture environment. Soil is not used in the greenhouse. Instead, a water current with nutrients is pumped to rows of plants in troughs and buckets.
Dennis Skinner, assistant professor of horticulture at Pennsylvania College of Technology, checks tomatoes in a
greenhouse at the Herman T. Schneebeli Earth Science Center in White Deer. The crop is fed constantly through a series of water-bearing tubes.
CRAIG S. McKIBBEN JR./
After hoping to work fruit and vegetable production into his curriculum for years, Dennis Skinner, assistant professor of horticulture, said he "jumped" at the opportunity to spearhead the initiative.
"This is the opportunity I've been working 30 years for," Skinner said with a smile.
The garden produces seven types of lettuce, spinach and endive. The school uses a "nutrient film technique" to grown them, which uses tubes to constantly circulate the water mixture through troughs the plants are stored in.
The water is recirculated through the troughs constantly pumping nutrients to the plants.
A "Dutch bucket" technique, which connects plants in multiple buckets with piping, produces four tomato varieties, two kinds of cucumbers and eggplant. The water mixture also is circulated in the technique but it only is used once, not recirculated.
All produce is pesticide-free. Skinner credits keeping a clean greenhouse and the absence of soil for not having a pest problem.
The garden always was a goal of Skinner's but because of a lack of funding and a focus on landscaping in the program the production focus he was looking for never came to fruition.
"I always tried to work it into my classes and my colleagues would say, 'What ... are you doing with this fruit stuff? We're a landscaping school,' " Skinner said laughing.
That was until recently. Layne Eggers, assistant dean of the school of hospitality, told him about an open greenhouse and Skinner was all in.
Work on the greenhouse began last summer as it needed to be emptied out - having been used as a storage closet previously - and have equipment setup.
Skinner said choosing a hydroculture garden was an easy decision as it fit perfectly with the college's mission of looking at "emerging technologies" - although the practice isn't new, he said it is not commonly used.
Skinner and his students then began experimenting with different varieties of lettuce and tomatoes, to see which ones worked best in the hydroculture environment. He estimates about 15 varieties of lettuce were used at first, but now are down to seven.
But the project isn't just benefiting the horticulture program.
"Every week we harvest a quarter of (the lettuce)," Skinner said. "These go to different parts of dining services."
Skinner admitted he was the first to taste the product.
"It was awesome," Skinner said, remembering when he first tasted the lettuce and tomatoes produced in the greenhouse on Christmas Eve.
"I couldn't resist any longer. So I picked two tomatoes and a head of lettuce," he said. "Christmas Eve I had a salad with only lettuce and tomato and yeah, it was quite satisfying."
Noelle Bloom, assistant director of dining services, said her department uses the lettuce in salad bars. Eggers added that students in the school of hospitality use the produce while working at Le Jeune Chef Restaurant, the school of hospitality's on-campus restaurant.
Eggers called the project a "win-win-win" situation.
"It's a good educational opportunity for our students. It's a good cost-savings (program) ... and it's fiscally responsible," he said.
And, according to Bloom, students take notice of the school-grown produce.
"There's a pride that it's student-run and that it's grown at the Earth Science Center," she said.
Penn College President Dr. Davie Jane Gilmour said not only is the garden a valuable learning tool, but it could save dining services and the restaurant "thousands of dollars."
"The Campus Community Garden is a wonderful initiative featuring collaboration from a variety of academic programs and student groups across campus," Gilmour said. "Dining Services and Le Jeune Chef Restaurant will realize thousands of dollars in cost savings from this project. Just as important, though, we are encouraging and promoting sustainability and complementing our efforts to buy food from local producers whenever possible."
The project is set to expand as a traditional soil-based garden will be installed in the back of the greenhouse. Skinner said it will help classes compare the process and produce grown in both environments.
The garden will grow produce not grown in the hydroculture garden, such as carrots, beets and peas.
Skinner added that the school will continue to look at effective ways of composting, harvesting rain water and the use of predatory insects instead of pesticides.
Teaching the community about the greenhouse's techniques is another goal, Eggers said, as workshops will be held in the future.