A not-so-green greenhouse

The windows of Ward Beecher Hall reveal a room of browning plants visible to students walking along Lincoln Avenue.

Despite the lack of green, the chamber of dwindling foliage is Youngstown State University’s greenhouse, which has languished under insufficient funds.

“I call it death valley,” said Ian Renne, assistant professor of biological sciences and greenhouse coordinator. “It was a failed exhibit that started out as a tropical rainforest but failed due to poor infrastructure and lack of maintenance.”

There are three sections of the greenhouse: angiosperm, gymnosperm and rainforest. The sections are more commonly known as chambers one, two and three.

Alexandria Szakacs, YSU junior and undergraduate assistant for the greenhouse, said that two chambers are more or less doing well. They hold more than 260 plants and 80 species, Szakacs said.

“The third chamber is the one people think of when they see the greenhouse from the road,” she said. “The rainforest section is dead, locked and collapsing. I have been told that no one is allowed in the third chamber for legal reasons.”

In addition to aesthetic value, a fully renovated greenhouse could provide learning opportunities and research possibilities, Renne said.

But the 30-year-old project is in dire need of renovations as wilting funds have left the greenhouse high and dry.

“It needs funding,” Renne said. “There are three components to a greenhouse: community outreach, education and research. We have a poorly functioning greenhouse that has all three.”

Renne said the greenhouse contains a variety of plant specimens that are occasionally used for educational purposes, research activity and lab exercises.

Biology students conduct experiments involving plant materials, while chemistry students use the greenhouse for gene research.

Mario Motha, YSU freshman and social services major, works on his “Grow it Green” experiment in the greenhouse.

“My goal was to see the glass half full instead of half empty,” he said.

Motha said he strives to help the economy and the area’s low-income families through his project. He wants to show people how to eat healthfully with a low-cost garden.

“Everything is going well so far,” he said. “The challenge is when the weather changes.”

Greenhouses typically regulate light and temperature, creating an ideal environment for growth. YSU’s greenhouse lacks that control.

“The main problems with the greenhouse are with the structure and climate regulation systems,” Szakacs said. “An ideal greenhouse temperature would be a stable 60 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit at all times.”

She added that the climate system is too inefficient to maintain this temperature range, and the greenhouse experiences major temperature fluctuations.

“Depending on the season and sun, it can freeze or go up to 120 plus degrees,” Szakacs said.

The lack of temperature control limits research activities and undergraduate work.

“Nobody wants to devote months to a project and have it freeze,” Renne said.

In 2007, YSU paid Choffin Career and Technical Center $500 to use its reliable greenhouse for Renne’s first research project.

“I couldn’t risk 125-degree temperatures torching the plants,” he said.

When Renne started as the greenhouse director, there was a small amount of money for renovations, but that was never allocated.

“It’s not just an administration issue; there are lots of ways for it to be funded,” Renne said. “It would be nice if a generous benefactor were to donate funds to this important facility. It’s one that fosters education, drives research and provides community services.”

The greenhouse will help community garden projects like Grow Youngstown, whose goal is to bring fresh local foods to the area. Native plants from the greenhouse were also given away at the YSU Summer Festival of the Arts.

“I believe the greenhouse is necessary for many plant experiments, as well as a teaching tool for a number of biology and environmental classes,” Szakacs said. “There is a difference between seeing a cycad in a text book and seeing live ones growing right in front of you”

Renne submitted three grants to the National Science Foundation for full renovations. Although one came close, none were approved.

The grant could have provided $690,000 for the renovations. That money could have provided a “state-of-the-art, fully modernized ‘green’ greenhouse.”

Renne doesn’t see student interest as the problem but rather limited funds.

“Administration, grants or benefactor support would greatly improve the research and education infrastructure at Youngstown State University, an urban research institution,” Renne said.