Aromatic purple tulips, tiny sprouting seedlings, pale-green pilot tomatoes, and hanging, spiky cacti contribute to the wondrous botanical array inside the University of Vermont Greenhouse these days. While most of the greenhouse is dedicated to ornamentals, there is banana and avocado arboriculture, too, and even a “fruit cocktail” tree — a grafted combination of peaches, plums and nectarines.
Visitors might be surprised by something else inside these transparent walls: that anyone in the community can lease greenhouse space here and start springtime seedlings for their home garden.
Last Friday, I escaped the gray, slanting rain to tour the Main Campus Greenhouse, one of three that the university owns and operates. This branch — the only one routinely open to the public — serves an educational and social purpose that is not widely known.
My tour guide was UVM greenhouse manager Colleen Armstrong, who's had the job since shortly after construction of the building in 1992. She caught the “botany bug,” she said, at the University of Michigan, where she was the first female employee in her alma mater’s greenhouse program.
UVM’s computer-controlled, 8000-square-foot glass building consists of 11 conjoined chambers; there is also an outdoor nursery. Armstrong oversees 400 or so plant species, each chosen to represent a particular botanical family.
The main greenhouse is connected to multiple academic buildings, including the Jeffords Hall — home to the Plant and Soil Science Department — and serves as a classroom for courses in botany, plant physiology, soil ecology, home and garden horticulture, and botanical drawing and painting. The space is also an incubator for undergraduate and graduate scientific research, examining such subjects as invasive species, chemical contaminants and mineral wastes.
The main greenhouse is also a popular place to kick back and read, study or indulge in quality campus grub. “Every year we see more students socially gathering here for a quick picnic or to escape winter winds,” reported Armstrong.
But those greenhouse benches are for more than just hanging out; it's here that community members can rent up to 10 square feet of bench space to get seeds started for their vegetables and flowers at home. That's plenty of space in which to fit 90 small pots or 36 six-packs.
For $70 per month, the greenhouse staff will water and fertilize the plants, as well as patrol for pests and diseases. “You basically provide the seeds and walk away. We have all the pots, soil and trays you need,” explained Armstrong. “Although we do encourage you to check on your plants often — it’s so exciting to see them grow!”
Starting your home garden from seed is way cooler than buying full-grown plant transplants. The greenhouse rental program is opportunity for gardening gurus and rooting rookies alike to unite for all that is earthy and edible.
After the tour, I became a new tenant of bench space in the greenhouse, ready to start my heirloom tomatoes, and anticipating the return of dirt-encrusted fingernails and compost-covered clothing.