Tower Road Greenhouse interior

Greenhouses at Tower Road plant deep roots for future expansion

By: Katie Klodowski, Communications Intern

Over the past 20 years, the Office of Physical Plant’s landscape operations have taken on a bigger and bigger role at Penn State’s University Park campus.

What started as a basic grounds maintenance operation has now morphed into a full botanic service.

At University Park, the crews at the Nittany, Pollock and Tower Road landscape shops are responsible for maintaining 480 acres of lawn, 71 acres of shrub beds, 16,000 trees, The Arboretum at Penn State, and planting a multitude of flowers every year. At the roots of this operation are the greenhouses located at the Tower Road Landscape Facility. These greenhouses and plant material holding areas are the starting point for much of the plant life that is eventually spread around Penn State’s campus.

A blossoming program

When Jeff Dice became a supervisor for OPP’s grounds maintenance in 1998, there were very few flowers on campus. However, in the summer of 2000, the National Governor’s Association held their annual conference at Penn State. During that time, there was a big push to add more color and beauty to campus.

In the weeks leading up to the conference, OPP hired an outside contractor to prepare containers full of flowers to place all over campus. After the conference concluded, Dice and his crew had an important realization: “Even though the containers looked nice, they were very expensive. We realized we could make them better and do it with less money.”

Eventually students, faculty and staff started to notice the flowers and greenery on campus. In order to accommodate all their new duties, OPP’s grounds maintenance had to expand. Job descriptions were written, people were trained and hired, and a horticulture crew and landscape construction crew were added to complement the work of the existing grounds maintenance team.

Growing the garden

At the beginning of Dice’s tenure, his crew was housed in a small brick building near Rec Hall. Today, the operation has expanded with three greenhouses packed full of plant life at the Tower Road facility.

The newest of these, OPP Greenhouse Production 1, was carefully designed to be extremely productive and expandable for the future. Now, the greenhouse is full of material that is homegrown and with containerized plant material that is used for bigger projects. Throughout the year, the facility serves as a holding area for a changeable amount of plant life that is always coming in for different projects around campus; the crew at this facility works tirelessly to ensure that all the plant life is ready to be sent out to their various destinations.

OPP Greenhouse Production 1 at the Tower Road Landscape Facility is compartmentalized into several different sections. One of these compartments houses tropical and exotic plants that would normally have difficulty growing in a temperate environment. However, the greenhouse has systems in place to ensure that the environment stays steady any time of the day or night, both in the summer and in the winter. Recently, plants such as tropical water plants, bird of paradise and banana trees have found a home in the Tower Road greenhouses. This area serves as a storage space for the Arboretum's botanic collection. Since one of OPP’s missions is to help facilitate the academic mission of the Arboretum, many of the plants stored at OPP Greenhouse Production 1 will eventually be planted at the Conservatory Terrace, the Oasis Garden or at other locations in the Arboretum.

Full bloom, no matter the season

All sections of OPP Greenhouse Production 1 are equipped with a state-of-the-art control system that works to maintain homeostasis.

“There are sensors that take measurements of temperature and humidity every 10 seconds," explained intern Taylor McCoy. "Depending on the readings, shades on the roof of the greenhouse will open or close to only allow the right amount of sunlight in.”

While the shades do open and close on a pretty constant schedule, the sensors and computer automation take away the possibility of human error that could negatively affect the plants. Plants are also watered automatically through piping; an automatic timer hydrates the plants as scheduled. The newest greenhouse also features a walk-in refrigerator, where the crew can store plant material in preparation for planting.  

Different plants in the greenhouses are also partitioned off and clearly labeled, with different fertilizers used depending on the needs of the particular plant species. Flowers are also clearly labeled to prevent them from going to the wrong customer or the wrong place on campus.

Currently, the telecommunications crew is working on installing a wireless connection into OPP Greenhouse Production 1 in order to streamline the process of taking inventory. With a wireless connection, a crew member would be able to walk around with their laptop computer, survey the collection, and catalog everything that is in the greenhouse.

It’s a bug-eat-bug world

Recently, the crew has also started using a new method to protect the plants from pests and diseases. Instead of using pesticides, they now use natural pest predators to fight off insects that would normally prey on the plants in the greenhouse. The project was made possible by a Reinvention Fund grant awarded by Penn State’s Sustainability Institute to researchers on campus, who tested the new method in the Tower Road greenhouses at OPP. When the crew realized how well the new method worked, they continued to stay away from pesticides and have now been using the natural pest predators for two years.

“It’s a huge increase in safety for the crew and it’s much better for the environment,” Dice said.

Since the greenhouses open up to the outside environment quite often, there is a free-flow of insects always coming in and out. Despite this, the new chemical-free method has worked well and has kept all of the plant life free of harmful insects.

This new procedure complements the University Park Integrated Pest Management Program (IPM), which addresses indoor pests. In October 2015, OPP adopted the program in an effort to both protect University employees and to also more effectively rid campus buildings of unwanted insects and animals. The implementation of these practices at the Tower Road greenhouses creates healthier indoor air quality and supports Penn State’s sustainability goals.

Planting for the future

In recent years, OPP’s grounds maintenance crew has made significant strides toward becoming more efficient and sustainable. The crew continues to look to the future, and they hope to expand their operation even more.

"Penn State has invested a lot in its landscaping, and it shows right here," said Dice. "At one time, we lived in the mud and we had one little greenhouse. In most operations, particularly in horticulture, it’s often a sweat-equity operation — you do the best with what you have. It’s hard to believe we’ve gotten this advanced from where we started.”