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Garden Initiative Serves as Living Laboratory

A Campus Community Garden at Pennsylvania College of Technology is offering fresh learning opportunities – and food options – on the college’s campuses.

Planted during the Fall 2012 semester in one of the greenhouses at the college’s Schneebeli Earth Science Center near Allenwood, the Campus Community Garden’s first phase is in operation, with several types of vegetables growing in a hydroculture environment that was assembled and planted by campus volunteers.

Among its chief goals, the garden initiative seeks to provide a living laboratory to promote awareness of alternative agriculture technologies and to offer opportunities for employee and student volunteers to work together as a community.

Landscape/horticulture technology students Jeremy L. Thorne, center, of Sugarloaf, and Jonathan T. Hall, right, of Tamaqua, join Dennis P. Skinner, assistant professor of horticulture, in collecting the first lettuce harvest from Penn College’s Campus Community Garden.
Landscape/horticulture technology students Jeremy L. Thorne, center, of Sugarloaf, and Jonathan T. Hall, right, of Tamaqua, join Dennis P. Skinner, assistant professor of horticulture, in collecting the first lettuce harvest from Penn College’s Campus Community Garden.

The hydroculture section of the greenhouse – soon to be joined by a traditional, soil-based section – employs a “nutrient film technique” channel system, used for lettuce-family plants, and a Dutch bucket growing system, used for tomatoes, cucumbers and other vine plants.

The channel system constructed for the nutrient film technique can grow more than 10,000 heads of lettuce annually. The innovative system circulates nutrient-enriched water through 58 channels, each of which accommodates 15 heads of lettuce. Before being recirculated, water passes through a fertroller, an automated dosing system that analyzes the water and injects needed nutrients.

The garden’s Dutch bucket system can sustain 120 plants and produce up to 2.5 tons of vegetables each year. Like the channel system used for lettuce, the Dutch bucket system uses only nutrient-enriched water that circulates through 12-inch-by-12-inch pots filled with perlite.

The plants begin in a controlled environment, where seeds are planted in rockwool and nurtured until they reach transplant size. At that point, the plants are placed in either the channel or bucket system to continue growing until they reach maturity. Planting of the seeds is staggered to ensure a weekly supply of fresh produce.

To start, the garden is producing six varieties of lettuce, five varieties of tomatoes, two types of cucumbers and eggplant Ophelia. The first lettuce was harvested in early November. Organizers expect to begin harvesting vine-grown vegetables in January.

Various departments on campus are reaping the rewards of the Community Garden. Culinary arts students in the college’s School of Hospitality use the fresh, pesticide-free produce in Le Jeune Chef Restaurant, the on-campus fine-dining restaurant where students gain hands-on experience while serving the public. In addition, produce is sold to the community at large during the school’s weekly bread and pastry sales in The Market, Le Marche Commun.

The college’s Dining Services operation uses the produce for its salad bars and “Grab ’n’ Go” pre-packaged salads and sandwiches. Any remaining produce is donated to local food banks.

Students, including members of the School of Hospitality’s Diners Club and the School of Natural Resources Management’s Horticulture Club, are involved in overseeing and managing the garden. Students make up half of the 12-member community garden committee.

“It’s a good opportunity for students to have a voice,” said Layne E. Eggers, assistant dean of the School of Hospitality, who proposed the garden initiative.

The garden also has academic benefits, as it has served as a teaching tool in such courses as Sustainable Crop Production in the landscape/horticulture technology majors. Eggers envisions the garden becoming a learning tool for a variety of other academic departments, as well, including students in biology and sustainable design courses.

A portion of the greenhouse is set aside for displays and demonstrations. Garden tours began in the fall with the college’s Dining Services managers and cooks, with plans to offer tours to food-service staff from area school districts and field trips to local schoolchildren.

Proceeds from the sales of produce at Le Marche Commun are used for the garden, with hopes of making it a self-sustaining venture. Equipment for the garden was purchased using funds from the Student Government Association, corporate donations and fundraising dinners hosted by the Diners Club and Horticulture Club.

To learn more about the academic programs offered by the School of Hospitality at Penn College, call 570-327-4505. To learn about the programs of the School of Natural Resources Management, call 570-320-8038.

For more about the college, email the Admissions Office or call toll-free 800-367-9222.

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