When members of the Agronomic Services Division’s soil lab envisioned building a greenhouse garden at the office, they expected it would provide fruits, vegetables and a place to take their breaks, but they didn’t expect it would help them connect more closely with the work they do every day testing soil samples.
That connection has been just another positive outcome from the volunteer effort, said Dr. Colleen Hudak-Wise, director of the Agronomic Service Division. “Now they know what we do really does make a difference,” she said. “They understand what they do is very important to the growers.”
Connecting the dots between the scientific process of lab work and the end results to users wasn’t the impetus behind the idea, but it is not lost on members of the soil testing team.
“We have working knowledge of testing, but we are not farmers. It lets us apply the knowledge of what we are doing and take our science knowledge and apply it at the farmers level,” said Josh Peavey, a senior chemistry technician, whose idea it was to build the greenhouse.
What prompted that connection is likely what leads many people to submit soil samples to the lab to begin with – less than impressive production.
Senior chemistry technician Rohan Mohammed said the first year the team planted in the greenhouse and outside garden, they did not take a soil sample and the results were ok, but not great.
“We had some laughs about that (not thinking to collect soil samples),” Peavey said. “The next year, we took samples and tested and realized the plot outside needed to have the soil pH brought up.”
Dr. David Hardy, who oversees the soil lab, interpreted their test results and gave them recommendations to improve their yields and the results were almost immediate and obvious by their abundant harvest. The connection of work and its impact had truly come full circle.
“This gardening project was a great way to put into practice what we tell growers to do – Don’t guess … soil test!” Mohammed said.
Evolution of an idea
Building a greenhouse at the lab from recycled materials was an idea Peavey had been thinking about for a while, when he saw an ad online for free windows and doors. With Dr. Hudak-Wise’s blessing, he secured the doors and began planning out the space to build the greenhouse and how it could all be pieced together. The project has proven to be a great problem-solving exercise from beginning to today since the windows and doors were all different sizes.
The site for the greenhouse sits where a large tree had once stood that had toppled over and pulled up roots, creating a hole in the ground and making it something of an eyesore.
Between the greenhouse and an outdoor employee vegetable garden, visitors to the lab who come to drop off samples now see a more attractive area, and it has even prompted questions and attention from visitors.
“Customers come and want to walk around and talk about it,” Peavey said, adding they are curious to know what is being grown. “I’m very proud of it, Dr. Wise is happy with it and customers comment on it.”
The soil lab team have more plans for outdoor areas including a memorial garden honoring a former coworker.
Morale, mental health and teamwork
It is easy to see the great source of pride the greenhouse and garden spaces provides for the soil testing team, plus the way it pulls everyone together. They eagerly show off the greens, herbs and vegetables they are able to harvest from their efforts and share with others in the lab. And, they enjoy talking about how they were able to problem solve along the way as each growing season has offered up new challenges.
The list of fruits and vegetables they have planted reads like a gardening catalogue – cucumbers, tomatoes, eggplant, jalapeno peppers, green peppers, shishito peppers, dinosaur kale, cantaloupe, figs, lettuce, bok choy, curly kale, onions, garlic chives, and basil.
Even as the season is starting to come to an end, they are still harvesting kale, tomatoes, egg plants and greens from the garden and greenhouse. Thanks to a hydroponic setup inside the greenhouse that is made from recycled gutters, more greens are coming in behind those that are ready to be harvested.
“It keeps us together and it keeps us working as a team,” Mohammed said.
Employees tend to the greenhouse and gardens during their breaks and down time. Using some recycled wood, they were also able to build a picnic table that any of the lab employees can use for their breaks.
Retaining employees and helping provide balance at work is an ongoing challenge, but Hudak-Wise sees the benefits of listening to employee-driven ideas like this one.
Stepping outside the building and away from their lab equipment is important for employees, Dr. Hudak-Wise said. So, offering them the opportunity to do this project on their breaks wasn’t really a tough decision.
“I like to keep a broader perspective on the health of employees,” she said. “If you can make someone happy in their job, and provide a welcoming and engaging work environment, people are more likely to hang around.”
For the lab crew, taking breaks outdoors and working in the garden breaks up a day spent in a windowless lab environment and it helps build a sense of camaraderie and community that is clearly evident.
“There are no windows in the lab, and it can be chilly, so it’s nice to be able to get outside in the sun,” Mohammed said. “Plus, it allows us to beautify our outdoor area.”