How is the Westminster Campus Science Department Using the New Greenhouse?

“It’s been a dramatic success for students to experience growing something where the back of a classroom, with grow lights, was fine but didn’t reflect real life growing in a greenhouse,” said Dan Bachelor, who oversees the horticulture department at Front Range Community College-Westminster Campus. The greenhouse has been operational for about eight months, and we are approaching the end of the second semester of classes utilizing the space.

Bachelor and the other horticulture professors have taken advantage of the greenhouse to teach their students about growing and maintaining plants. “It’s been a really good learning experience for students, instead of growing in the classroom, which is what we did before. They get to see different types of plants,” Bachelor said.

In addition to the horticulture department, other science classes, such as biology, use the space for experiments and hands-on learning opportunities.

The greenhouse features multiple benches for a variety of plants. First, the propagation chamber is a bench that has frame attached to the table and plastic sheeting attached to the frame. This allows growers to create a controllable micro-climate that is warmer and higher in humidity than the greenhouse. Bachelor explained, “Every morning we come in, including Saturday and Sunday, and we mist in here. We’re trying to keep the humidity really high so when we have plants that are susceptible to drying out – seedlings, cuttings, and clones – they will have a better chance of rooting.”

Bachelor’s landscape management class uses a bench with 15 varieties of turf grasses grown in pots. This allows the students to be able to identify the different varieties of turf grass physical characteristics, and also by observing the ligules and auricles, or parts of grass closer to the soil/root systems. Students can see what the turf grasses look like when they flower, which does not often occur in managed lawns due to mowing. Bachelor also has mowed and un-mowed portions of turf, so students can see the grasses at different stages of growth and understand the characteristics of different grasses in their natural and managed states.

Bachelor’s introduction to horticulture class uses two benches for experiential education. The benches hold trays full of different plants in different stages of growth. Students create hypotheses of different aspects of plant care, such as the effectiveness of natural vs. chemical based fertilizers, then create and run experiments.

Also in the greenhouse is the “plant library,” a myriad of different plants that students can observe and work with. The plants are used in structured labs, as well as less structured labs where students can get creative and experiment.

Finally, the greenhouse is home to a variety of exotic plants. “Our cacti are back in the corner and students really flock to that bench because of the appearance of the plants, because they are so different, including plants that we don’t often get to see flower in our homes,” Bachelor explained. “We have woody plants that either the greenhouse class or propagation class brought in as bare root and potted up. They have all survived, including apple trees.” In fact, one of the apple trees is a special variety that no longer grows in mainstream orchards.

In addition to actually growing plants, students have the opportunity to experience the technical side of greenhouse management. The greenhouse is equipped with state-of-the-art control and irrigation systems, which allow growers to set parameters, such as temperature and moisture levels. A complex computer control system uses vents, fans and the irrigation system to maintain an ideal environment for plants. This is a wonderful opportunity for any student who is interested in greenhouse management to gain experience using a high-tech system.

The greenhouse not only allows students to see how technology is used in the agricultural world, but they also get to experience some of the short-falls of these systems. Bachelor explained that the irrigation system unevenly waters the plants, so he and Ray Daugherty, horticulture professor, have to water many of the plants by hand.

Once programmed, the computer takes care of most of the things that people historically have done by hand, such as water or controlling the shade and air-flow inside the greenhouse. But, the irrigation system highlights the reality that even a highly technological system cannot solve all horticultural problems, and that problem-solving skills are still important.

“Last year, I had my irrigation class put in a two-inch line that goes to the other end of the greenhouse, so even in the winter, when all the irrigation on campus is turned off, we can still do irrigation labs,” Bachelor said. This was a great opportunity for students to get hands-on experience maintaining and installing an irrigation system on a developed site.

The greenhouse also allows students to solve more traditional issues that arise in the horticulture world that do not involve technology. For example, insects and pests cause problems for all gardners, including those at FRCC.

“We’ve had some insect control issues, which is normal in a greenhouse when you have an enclosed space like this that doesn’t have a lot, or any, natural predators. So if you get an aphid, or white fly, or spider mite, they have no natural predators, so their population explodes really quickly. We are dealing with all of those right now,” Bachelor explained. Students try different ways to control these insect outbreaks, and see how effective those different methods are.

Bachelor has yet to spray pesticides, and instead used ladybugs and Dr. Bronner’s Castile soap to combat the pests. He learned through trial about the soap’s benefits and downfalls. “Anything that I sprayed with it, died. We may have mixed it too strong and there were some adverse effects to the plants. The plants were already stressed [from the insects], and they had some growth issues after [the Bronner’s application],” he said. “It’s all part of the learning process.”

Bachelor encourages students, when they find a bug or other plant health issue, to look it up and research what the pest or disease may be, and how they can treat or correct the problem.

The greenhouse is benefitting science education at FRCC, and while Bachelor sees a bright future for the program, he worries about the greenhouse’s capacity.

“We’ve talked to the Denver Botanical Gardens (DBG) about a possible relationship to grow plants for them. Our greenhouse or propagation class would actually grow plants to be sold at the DBG plant sale. Nothing formal has been drawn up yet, but if it happens it would likely happen next spring [2017]. A year from now, we may have a couple of benches devoted to growing some of their plants,” Bachelor said. The horticulture program would benefit from this arrangement, as the money would be split between the DBG and FRCC.

The current construction on the greenhouse is more about aesthetics than much-needed expansion. “The campus decided that the chain-link fence didn’t have the aesthetic that they wanted so we are putting up a much nicer, black wrought-iron fence that will look really, really nice,” Bachelor said. “There will be security features in place so it will look nicer and be safer. It will also benefit the maintenance crews here too because they are putting concrete at the base of the fence so they won’t have to edge.”

FRCC provides invaluable resources to benefit students’ educations. The greenhouse gives science students the opportunity to learn in the same environment in which they will eventually apply their degrees.

Written by Alex Liethen

Photos by Alex Liethen

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