The Central Virginian

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Louisa school, community work for new greenhouse

Posted on Thursday, February 23, 2012 at 8:50 am

By Brian Cain

Reece Ebeling (left to right) waters plants, Idris Clark and Justin Gammon check out the growth of the plants. The students are preparing and watering the plants to last the weekend. Photo by John Strader

Downsizing from a 30-foot by 60-foot greenhouse to three folding tables in a modular unit  would cause an average horticulture program to wilt.

But Louisa County High School’s greenhouse production class is flourishing in the new environment despite cramped conditions and having lost much of their plant stock during the August earthquake.

While none of the panes of glass in the greenhouse broke during the shaking, the class was forced to vacate the structure after engineers deemed the high school building and associated structures unsafe.

Russell Jennings, horticulture science and greenhouse production teacher, said that he had limited time to remove plants from the building and—without adequate space for relocation—many of them died in the greenhouse.

But despite the loss and a smaller venue, Jennings said that his class is on track to complete their greenhouse certification while plans for a new temporary greenhouse are being finalized.

“We’re adapting and kids are learning,” Jennings said. “My class is a good group of kids. They do really well.”

He said that CTE classes require seniors to complete a certification and the greenhouse certificate provides students with the necessary experience to work in a greenhouse.

Like many of the school’s Career and Technical Education programs, Jennings’ class has had to overcome location and training issues.

They, along with several other CTE classes, have been meeting in a smaller mobile unit located behind Louisa County Middle School.

Jennings said that the adjustment to a much smaller space hasn’t kept him or his 14 students from growing vegetables and other plants.

“Sure, I miss working in the greenhouse every day and I’ve had to change the way I do things,” Jennings said, “but it’s going to work out fine.”

Jennings constructed a make-shift greenhouse out of plant trays and folding tables which are lined up against the back wall of the classroom.

Students water the plants by filling up large jugs from an outdoor faucet nearby—the abandoned greenhouse utilized an automatic sprinkler system.

Jennings discovered that the unusual conditions have actually helped classroom instruction.

“Some lessons I could never get them to really understand, like photo periods and how plants grow towards the light,” he said. “Now, I can show them how plants search for light.”

The modular unit has two small windows to provide plants with life-sustaining sunlight and students rotate the position of the plants on the tables at the back of the room to ensure that each plant receives adequate light.

With each rotation, the plants grow in a different direction towards the sun.

“They’ll move back and forth during the day, or from one day to the next,” Jennings said. “It’s really cool.”

Jennings said that while his biggest challenge after the earthquake was losing much of his plant stock, he was able to salvage his “grandma’s tomatoes,” one of his most prized vegetables which weighs in at approximately two pounds each.

“They’re the best tomatoes,” Jennings said. “Once slice will cover an entire sandwich.”

He received the tomatoes—an indeterminate, heirloom beefsteak variety—from his wife’s grandmother, who brought them with her from Sicily to New York in the 1950s.

“When I got to meet grandma, she found out I was a horticulturist and she said ‘Let me give you something before you leave,’” he said. “I’ve been growing them ever since and I’ve been saving seeds every year.”

Seeds are an integral part of the greenhouse program and students sell what they grow to purchase new seeds and additional materials for…

To read the entire story, see this week’s The Central Virginian now on newsstands.