The quirks of Pullman weather can make gardening tough. It was only a few years ago that it snowed in June. But in the greenhouses scattered around campus, researchers and students can keep growing and studying plants in adverse weather. Even visitors to campus can enjoy vegetables, holiday poinsettias, and flowers long before they’ll thrive on the Palouse.
The latest addition to the greenhouses on campus, a two-story building that resembles a glass apartment complex with glowing sodium lights, sits behind the Lewis Alumni Centre. The research facility allows scientists to raise up to three generations of wheat, barley, and other grains every year, says WSU plant growth facilities manager Dan Dreesmann.
“We can grow 365 days a year with these high-light crops,” he says. “The goal is to make it a more efficient operation.”
Even when winter snow or cold spring nights stress crops outdoors, the new Washington Grains Plant Growth Facility provides about 30 percent more space for grain breeding and experiments. The $15 million greenhouse—funded by the Washington Grain Commission, U.S. Department of Agriculture, and WSU—also adds a seed vault, a threshing room, lab space, spray chamber, storage for soil and other necessities, and vernalization chambers to simulate cooler temperatures for the plants.
All of this is controlled by high-tech, wireless systems. The variable-speed fans muffle Dreesmann’s voice as he shows wheat variants from WSU breeder Arron Carter and barley experiments from Kevin Murphy. Green and gold plants cover tables throughout the 12 new growth chambers.
“We’re full and people always want more space. It’s my job to get everyone in here,” says Dreesmann. He has over 15 years of experience at WSU’s greenhouses, and the new grain facility is just one of his seven charges. Adjoining the newer building is an older facility, 20 years in service but still packed to capacity not only with wheat, but with chickpeas, camelina, peas, and lentils.
Spread across the east side of campus are other greenhouses under Dreesmann’s care, which house experiments from the entomology department’s insects to berry bushes and full-sized fruit trees for horticulture professor Amit Dhingra and his graduate students’ work. In total, the facilities have over 49,000 square feet of growing space. Low and long, these greenhouses resemble traditional facilities more than the newer grain buildings.
Greenhouses are nothing new, playing a part in WSU’s agricultural research mission since the 1890s. The concept itself stretches to ancient times, from “hanging gardens” in Mesopotamia to Chinese walled gardens. The ancient Greeks cultivated plants in their homes, and the Romans wrote about using rolling hotbeds to grow vegetables, sometimes behind glass made of mica.
The concept of heated glasshouses emerged from hothouses of medieval times and the Renaissance. French, English, and Dutch horticulturists of the 1500s designed glass greenhouses to grow coveted exotic fruits and better vegetables. An orangery or glasshouse signified luxury and year-round gustatory sophistication.
Like the orangeries of France, the teaching greenhouses at WSU grow a cornucopia of vegetables and flowers for people to enjoy no matter the season—but with a larger mission of educating horticulture students.
Starting in frigid early January, the three buildings across from Ferdinand’s in Pullman get stuffed with tomatoes (including the WSU-bred Cougar Red), begonias, peppers, herbs, baskets of flowers, and a wide variety of other plants, all managed by members of the Horticulture Club under the watchful eyes of James Holden.
Holden has taught students and overseen the teaching greenhouses for 35 years. “It’s hands-on learning. Anytime you deal with something living, it makes it a lot more meaningful if you can see and feel it,” he says.
After ordering seeds and starts, the horticulture club monitors the plants, the greenhouse temperatures, and any pests for 13 weeks. In late spring, the club holds its huge annual Mom’s Weekend plant sale in Beasley Coliseum, followed by community sales at the greenhouses through May.
Holiday poinsettias in November and December give another source of income for the Horticulture Club. Most of the proceeds fund scholarships.
Holden trains the students in the operation of the greenhouse and in the business side of the commercial plant industry, which gives the WSU graduates a leg up if they go to work in the field. “Instead of coming out with all book learning, they learn the scope of the industry, and have seen the crops from start to finish,” he says.
Holden and the students take pride in their products, evident by the return customers to the plant sales each year. Many of them take the plants to the west side of the state, where they can be planted immediately and deliver a splash of color from the flowers.
“We grow quality,” says Holden. “If someone buys a hanging basket of flowers from us, if they water and fertilize, I can guarantee it’s going to perform better than almost anything else they buy.”