Mason Opens Hydroponic Greenhouse in Push Toward Improved Sustainability

group of people in greenhouse with plants
Greenhouse Coordinator Doni Ward provides tours at the President’s Park Hydroponic Greenhouse.  Photo by Alexis Glenn/Creative Services

Visitors to George Mason University’s hydroponic greenhouse on Tuesday were treated much like visitors to a hospital during flu season, as they were asked to apply hand sanitizer before coming into contact with the plants.

George Mason students, staff and faculty got their first looks at the newly renovated greenhouse that’s part of the school’s push toward improved sustainability.

The precaution is for a good reason, says Doni Ward, greenhouse coordinator.

The plants are harvested for food consumption at Ike’s, the nearby dining facility, so the utmost care is taken to keep them germ-free.

In an agreement between Mason’s Office of Sustainability and Mason Dining, the greenhouse will provide some 200 pounds of food to Ike’s and for catered university events, in exchange for funding of a part-time greenhouse staff position.

chefs making appetizers
Dishes created with produce grown at the Presidents Park hydroponic greenhouse are served at a celebration of the greenhouse opening. Photo by Alexis Glenn/Creative Services

Before its rebirth as a food producer, the greenhouse in Presidents Park, near Taylor Hall,  was used for three years to grow plants for biology and ecology experiments conducted by classes in the College of Science, which moved to a newer greenhouse atop Exploratory Hall.

During the renovation project, steps were taken to install equipment that would closely mimic naturally occurring conditions outside, Ward says.

A natural gas-powered heater kicks in if conditions become too cold in the greenhouse, while a wet wall cooling system is used along with fans to cool things down and keep air moving through the space. Plants do not thrive in stagnant air, she says.

people standing outside greenhouse
A ribbon-cutting ceremony for the newly renovated Presidents Park Greenhouse. Photo by Alexis Glenn/Creative Services

The greenhouse is special in that it is hydroponic. Instead of soil, it grows plants inside Rockwool, a sponge-like material that allows nutrient-rich water to reach the plants. Water is constantly recirculated for two weeks, after which all new water is pumped in, she says.

Special grow lamps emit only red and blue light because only light from that end of color spectrum is absorbed by plants. The lighting is eco-friendly in that it only costs a few cents a day to run and lasts for 10 to 12 years, Ward says.

Mason environmental science major Maryam Sedaghatpour was one of the first to tour the greenhouse on Tuesday and says she’s excited that it uses a soiless medium to grow plants.

“It’s a great way to grow food locally,” she says. “I love the idea of having food grown at [Mason] for students to eat.”