Wednesday, January 24th, 2018

USM’s Hidden Greenhouse

Posted on November 12, 2016 in Community
By USM Free Press

By Jack Hahn, Free Press staff

Did you know USM has its very own greenhouse? Tucked away atop the science building on the Portland campus sits this peaceful strip of green, ripe with the scent of wet earth and new life. According to Professor of Biology Kenneth Weber, the greenhouse has been there at least as long as he has been at USM, since 1991.

“We use it as a department more now than we used to when I first got here in the 90s. Back then there was a lot of junk in the way which we got rid of,” Weber stated.

Soon after Weber arrived at USM, Professor of Biology Theresa Theodose was hired and took over the greenhouse. A researcher named Tom Knight also began to conduct various experiments in the greenhouse. In one of these experiments he was trying to engineer plants to consume less nitrogen. Unfortunately, Tom Knight passed away a few years ago. Since that time the greenhouse has become a secret hideaway, where one student has brought it back to life.

Through the jumble of papyrus, mycorrhizae and numerous other plants, senior biology major Nathan Baril discussed how he has played a role in the greenhouse over the past couple of years. Baril, who is also a research assistant to Professor Theresa Theodose, is responsible for the major renovation and overhaul that has occurred here.

“It was a mess, more than it is now,” he stated, poking fun at all of the dirt and plant parts scattered around the ground. “There used to be a big wooden structure along the wall for holding plants, but it was so rotten and moldy that bugs had started to infest it.”

Baril got rid of the old structure and the vermin calling it home, and instead brought a different kind of insect into the greenhouse. These bugs, referred to as detritivores, feed on decomposing matter. He recently added composting bins to the greenhouse, in which he placed over 100 of the bugs he had collected by hand to help with the decomposition process.

“Over the years I have been working there, a great deal of organic matter accumulated in many bins, so I started composting it with insects over the summer in an attempt to minimize that,” he said. “So far it’s working splendidly!”

Experimentation is, of course, the main purpose of the greenhouse. Baril’s latest research project was focused on a native species of radish found on the beach. He was trying to determine what its primary source of nitrogen is. He tried to replicate the natural conditions in which the plant is found, but due to changes in light and nutrient levels the experiment could not be completed properly. But it’s all just a part of the learning experience. As Baril put it, “I have gained a great deal of horticultural knowledge and skills, especially when it comes to pest management.”

When asked about the existence of the greenhouse,few science students seemed to know about it. Some knew of it but weren’t sure exactly what it was used for. One student even thought it was on the Gorham campus.

If any science classes need a plant to use as an example or for a classroom activity, this is where those plants are grown. Any student who wants to perform experiments with plants can come, with permission, to partake in some horticulture. The greenhouse is full of dangerous plants and chemicals, which is why it is not open to the public. Baril described it as a tool for students to use.

“The greenhouse is a resource to students because it exposes you to horticultural practices, and in the process of honing those skills you learn a thing or two about botany,” he said. “My experience in the greenhouse has been a practice in autonomy, which has been so valuable to me, because it has taught me about the work ethic of science.”

Students eligible for Work Study are also more than welcome to apply for jobs in the greenhouse. These jobs would involve the upkeep of the greenhouse as a whole, as well as horticultural duties to take care of the plants.

As Baril put it, “Whether you’re into horticulture or not, it’s a fun and intriguing job that teaches you real skills.”

To other students who do not have Work Study but would still like to have or take care of plants, the biology department will be hosting a plant sale by the end of the month. If you ever have the opportunity to get involved with the greenhouse in any way, it is highly recommended by a variety of people on campus that you should take it.