Catawba Greenhouse Becomes Lab for New Gardening Techniques

03/11/16 by Guest Writer

By Hannah Davis

Most people don't notice the plain, glass-encased greenhouse behind the Shuford Science building because there is generally not much going on. 

Senior Pam Casdorph, with the help of Environmental Stewards, is looking to change all that. For the next few weeks, the greenhouse will be teeming with life – and not just plant life.

Some of the seedlings started in the Shuford Greenhouse will eventually be used to populate the sustainable garden and a future butterfly garden on campus, two projects started by two other Environmental Stewards. 

Casdorph is extremely grateful for the work the Center for the Environment is doing with its students and the community. “The more we can show each other that we have the ability to change our ways and make our world more sustainable, the better the quality of life for all of us will be,” she says. 

This project brings a completely new meaning to the phrase “rub some dirt in it.” The students carefully scrape away the cold, damp blackness of the new soil into precise holes. Next, they gently cradle the small seeds and place them in the soil feeling elated by the hope that in a few weeks, bright green sprouts will emerge in stark contrast to the dark uncultivated soil.

The opportunity to try out new gardening techniques with this project, such as hydroponics and straw-bale spring gardening, excites Pam the most. Hydroponic gardening is simply an agricultural technique that uses almost everything but soil to grow plants. Some types of replacement soil include sand, gravel, or water with added nutrients. This type of gardening is most famous for being used by NASA in their attempts to grow plants in outer space. 

Another type of gardening that she is using in the greenhouse is straw-bale gardening. The difference between a straw bale and a hay bale is that a hay bale contains seeds – which you don’t want as a part of your garden because it would cause weeds. Over 10 straw bales currently line the floor and fill the greenhouse with the childhood scent of hayrides on pumpkin farms in fall. This new gardening technique will soon become the home to potatoes, carrots, basil and many other vegetables and seasonings.

Five benefits of straw-bale gardening:
1. It creates plenty of space for roots to grow.
2. Straw is easy to pull apart when picking out root vegetables like carrots.
3. Essentially no weeding is necessary since the straw bales mimic raised beds.
4. Added height is useful for people with back injuries or those who have trouble bending over.
5. High nutrient content makes for a larger chance of a successful crop.

To build up nutrients in the straw bales so that plants will grow, it takes around 12 days of conditioning new bales with nitrogen, potassium, water and other organic matter to mimic natural topsoil and decompose the straw bale. This step is important – without it, the straw-bale would be too hot for the plants to grow. In areas where the soil quality is diminishing, the use of added nutrient gardening projects like these are becoming mainstream.

Casdorph’s biggest influence for this project is the time she spent with her mother as a child, when she learned about the importance of growing your own food firsthand in their family garden. Today she believes that “as an Environmental Steward it is a part of our responsibility to help everyone to become aware of growing issues in our world [and] one of those issues is being able to provide quality agriculture to an ever-growing population.” With this greenhouse project, she hopes to continue her mother’s legacy of teaching others about the importance of good, homegrown food.

Pam Casdorph believes strongly that interest in the “green” movement has increased. “I think the movement will become even stronger as we see the damage of emissions and other toxins to our world play out,” she says. Perhaps this environmental trend will pick up, but for now, it continues through the steady work of people like Casdorph.

 

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