Southwest Tennessee Community College

August 11, 2004

For more information, contact: Kimberly Stark (901) 333-4023 / Pat O’Brien (901) 333-4021

Green Grows Their Garden

At the top of a tall flight of steps overlooking the courtyard of Southwest’s Union Avenue Campus, a long-deserted greenhouse bloomed last spring as science met nature to produce a bonanza of outsized veggies.

Dr. Robert Whaley, professor of chemistry, and Charlie Phan, natural sciences lab technician, are both experienced gardeners. But neither had ever tried to grow vegetables in a greenhouse.

“The lure of the greenhouse was irresistible,” said Whaley. “I’d made a half-hearted attempt earlier to get it back in shape. When Charlie joined our staff, he brought a huge fund of energy and enthusiasm. In fact, he was the driving force for the project.” Whaley and Phan spent their spare time during the 2001-2002 academic year clearing out several years’ growth of weeds and vines, rewiring where needed, and repairing and rearranging various greenhouse components and furniture. By fall 2002, they were ready to garden.

The Scientific Approach

Whaley is a dedicated hydroponics gardener of long standing. “We constructed a hydroponic drip system, complete with an injection system to supply nutrients automatically and in quantities consistent with the available light. Then we set up our containers and started our seeds,” said Whaley. Hydroponic gardening is largely a matter of monitoring the drip system and nutrients – no weeding, and, of course, no watering since water is the plant medium. So Whaley and Phan pretty much relaxed and watched their garden grow. And GROW.

The harvest included huge lettuces, cabbages (15-pound), cucumbers (two feet!), vine-ripened tomatoes, red bell peppers – even a few experimental zinnias – “My wife kept asking when I was going to grow something useful!” said Whaley. For Phan, one of the delights of greenhouse gardening in the winter, even in Memphis, is to “look out all directions at snow and icicles while you’re tending – and harvesting – lushly growing vegetables and flowers!”

Greenhouse as Science Lab

Gardening in the greenhouse has been restricted to fall and winter because it has only a passive cooling system – automatic roof vents and exhaust fan. “Gardening there in the summers would give us vegetables already cooked,” said Whaley.

Phan’s next project is a cooling system that will allow the greenhouse to function year round as a lab for biology and chemistry classes. “We can set up experiments and projects to research chemical influences on plants, therapeutic uses, gene mutations in plants – a whole new dimension for our students,” said Phan. The greenhouse facilities would be available also to other disciplines taught at the College.

“While we and other faculty and staff have enjoyed the produce, our goal is to use the greenhouse to enhance the value of the curriculum. And we hope to have it as a lab, perhaps by the spring semester,” said Whaley. “Of course, some veggies on the side would be nice, too.”

Photo Caption: Dr. Robert Whaley (right) and Charlie Phan (left) show off the Southwest Greenhouse on the Union Avenue Campus.