Community Greenhouse project sows seeds of hands-on learning

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Bill MacDonald and Amy Peterson a hold a certificate of appreciation from the NHCHC in recognition of the College’s support for the new community greenhouse.

Healthy living initiatives are taking root in the North Hamilton community, thanks to a partnership with Niagara College.

The College’s Greenhouse Technician program played a key role in North Hamilton Community Health Centre’s new Community Greenhouse, which opened its doors this fall.

Bill MacDonald, professor from the College’s School of Environmental and Horticultural Studies and coordinator of the Greenhouse Technician program, noted that he was contacted by the NHCHC – a not-for-profit charitable organization that serves almost 20,000 clients across the broader Hamilton and Niagara area – in May 2015. The NHCHC was interested in partnering with the College’s successful Greenhouse program to establish its new Community Greenhouse, which would extend the growing season for its gardeners, improve access to fresh organic produce, create space for seedlings to provide to gardeners, and create opportunities for horticultural and education about organic growing. Students, in turn, would gain opportunities to learn about greenhouse setup and management firsthand while making a valuable contribution to the community.

“This really was a perfect fit for our program and I jumped at the chance to work with the NHCHC,” said MacDonald.

The 600-square-foot greenhouse, which had been donated to the Centre, was a blank slate before about 20 second-year students began working on the project last fall as part of their Greenhouse Crops course. Designing and implementing greenhouse systems for crop production aligns with the learning objectives for the course, MacDonald said, and offered students a real world application for their classroom learning.

“The students were extremely eager to work on this project,” he said. “Our students were able to get out of the classroom and design a real life greenhouse system to benefit a progressive community centre.”

Equipment was donated from local growers including benches and irrigation material. NC’s Research & Innovation Division secured VEBTA funding for the students to implement an innovative tower garden growing system, allowing them to maximize space by growing vertically.

The fruits of their labour began to blossom earlier this year. Between April and August, the community greenhouse’s inaugural growing season produced a bountiful harvest of lettuce, green onions, herbs, Swiss chard and kale which were distributed through the NHCHC’s programs as well as special events that benefited the community.

Academic projects coordinator for the College’s Horticulture, Greenhouse and Landscape programs, Amy Peterson noted that the project went very well. Not only did it establish a valuable partnership with the NHCHC, but it offered NC students as much of a hands-on experience as they could possibly get.

“Walking into an empty greenhouse and being tasked with filling it and making it run was a great challenge for the students,” she said. “This was a really valuable opportunity as this type of small-scale greenhouse growing is likely going to become more popular and more common as urban areas try to improve their food security.”

College students and faculty also dug into work beyond the greenhouse setup.

Summer co-op students continued work throughout the summer to ensure the systems that were installed functioned properly. A January-start student was hired part-time over the summer to develop growing guidelines and modules that the NCHCH can use to train its staff.

Four NC students worked with the Centre’s Health Promotion team to facilitate focus groups, and they provided a greenhouse presentation and led a general training session at a community workshop.

A pilot for the NHCHC’s first Horticultural Therapy program was launched in the Community Greenhouse, facilitated by Amy Peterson in partnership with the Centre’s Health Promotion staff, teaching participants about the healing properties of plants, composting, sprouting, and growing their own herbs and spices.

The Greenhouse Technician program’s partnership with the NHCHC continues to thrive this fall, as two new classes – about 40 second-year students— continue the work this year.

“We are very grateful for the partnership we have with the Greenhouse Technician program,” said Brent Esau, Pathways to Education director, North Hamilton Community Health Centre. “In addition to growing produce, we are seeing the greenhouse as an opportunity to engage community members in organic food production as well as therapeutic programs through horticulture. The partnership with NC has been instrument in setting up the greenhouse in ways that will serve long-term purposes for our community members.”

Niagara College received an External Partner award from the NHCHC at the grand opening of the Community Greenhouse.

In addition to the College, the NHCHC’s Community Greenhouse is supported by the Ontario Trillium Foundation, Hamilton Port Authority, Community Forward Fund, and TD Friends of the Environment.

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