All over campus, fresh emerald blades of grass are just starting to stick out from the mud left by melting snow. Bare, dull tree branches are speckled with bright green buds, tingling with excitement in the wind. A faint, but distinctly fresh, scent is in the air, the smell of rich, recently overturned soil.
Though the weather on campus varies throughout the year, inside the Stony Brook University Life Sciences greenhouse, it stays vibrant and full of life year round.
Stony Brook’s greenhouse has fifteen bays, or rooms, connected by one long, central hallway. Each contains a different group of plants that each require a specific temperature and environment. Most of the greenhouse is lush with plants, an artful collection of different textures and shades of green, with several rooms reserved for pond environments and earthworms. Some of the plants that live here include the Lithops sp., an uncommonly seen cactus known as a “living stone,” and the Synsepalum dulcificum, which produces berries that make sour things taste sweet.
“I feel so fortunate,” John Klumpp, the assistant greenhouse curator who has worked at the greenhouse since 1992, said. “People come here to take a break and escape the office, but I work here. I’m always here.”
The facility has two primary uses: supporting research and undergraduate studies. The Gardening Guild, an undergraduate organization that meets regularly each week during Campus Lifetime, plant a wide assortment of different vegetables, and this hectic time of year is planting season for their outdoor garden.
The Gardening Guild gets its roots from one of the classes offered under the Sustainability Studies program. Several students, like Serafina Margono, the guild’s vice president, and Brian Sutton, the guild’s secretary, took an agro-ecology course last spring in the greenhouse and enjoyed it so much that they continued taking care of the plants the following summer and fall. The guild has its own bay, as well as an outdoor garden. They house something a little different here from the other orchids, mainly fruit trees, ferns, and succulents: naturally grown vegetables. They have a growing collection, including some red Russian kale, Swiss chard, zucchini, radishes and even a thriving herb garden containing fresh basil, parsley, thyme and cilantro, all sitting in hand-assembled planters.
“We try to keep all our plants organic and use organic seeds,” Margono said. “We’ve also been trying to use the compost that we collect in the greenhouse by either worm composting, or tumbler composting.” This compost works as fertilizer for the plants.
Most notable of the guild’s vegetables, however, is the thick forest of tomatoes that blocks a noticeable portion of the bay’s light. The tomato plants display a healthy, lively green, each one sitting in its own pot on the table as they bathe in sunlight. The tomatoes lean on wooden sticks, some tied to the beams above with a string, and are approximately six feet tall. They appear to be stretching towards the sky, almost touching the glass ceiling of the greenhouse.
The tomato fruits themselves are very unique. They vary in size and shape, ranging from tiny, perfectly round, average-looking cherry tomatoes, to smooth, oval-shaped plum tomatoes, to large, beefsteak tomatoes. They also have a lesser known group: Yellow pear tomatoes, which, as their name suggests, are pear-shaped, like a slightly rounded out teardrop. A glowing bright yellow-orange in color when ripe, they look like old-fashioned streetlights, distinguishing them from the other tomatoes in the greenhouse.
The outdoor garden is a small rectangular patch in the grassy area just outside the greenhouse. It is a more recent addition to the guild, fenced off with the trunk of a fallen tree, slightly peeling bark and remaining stumps of branches still intact. Zucchini, Swiss chard, and basil were moved from the greenhouse and planted here. These vegetables flourish better outside and do not attract wild animals, like rabbits and deer. Still young plants, it is difficult to tell some of them apart at first glance. They are grouped together next to a few sunflower plants that recently braved the fluctuating cold weather. Immediately after planting, a beetle and an earthworm were witnessed checking out and crawling among the new plants.
The guild tends to their vegetable plants both indoors and outdoors regularly, watering, pruning and planting new seeds. In the last academic year, they have watched tomatoes, a watermelon plant and an avocado tree grow. The six-month-old avocado tree, with the pit shell still peeking through the pot’s soil, is almost two feet tall.
The guild is still waiting to receive complete recognition by the university, pending processing paperwork. In coming semesters, the guild plans to continue promoting gardening and environmental awareness, expanding its garden and plant varieties, and reaching out to other environmental organizations on campus.
“It’s so much more intimate knowing where your food comes from, and watching it grow,” Sutton said. “Not many people know what that is like anymore with the mass production of crops.”