Donation brings rooftop greenhouse back from the brink

Campus community celebrating successful first phase of restoration project

MRU Greenhouse
Professor Diana Fletcher watches on as third-year student Shane Steininger tends to plants in Mount Royal University's rooftop greenhouse. ~ Photo by Bryan Weismiller

Horticulturists at Mount Royal University are giving a green thumbs up to a year-long makeover of a once-beloved space that fell in to disrepair.

The University's rooftop greenhouse has been reborn, thanks to a generous donation from the TD Friends of the Environment Foundation - as well as countless barrels of elbow grease, courtesy of students, faculty and staff.

"Community support was paramount in turning our dreams in to reality," said Diana Fletcher, a long-time instructor in the Department of Environmental Science. "Now there's so much potential for future growth.

"This work is important because the facility is vital to research, student success and community education."

The greenhouse is now steadily growing from the remains of its former self, having survived a long stint of relative inactivity.

Somewhat ironically, the troubles started about a decade ago during the last round of renovations. Contractors were brought in to take care of leaky windows, cracked flooring and other age-related concerns. Unfortunately, all of the plants were destroyed during construction.

"It was sad that it happened to such a beautiful place," said Fletcher. "But I always dreamed about fixing it up.

"There was always the potential to create a wonderful classroom experience."

Skip forward several years to late 2014 when Mount Royal was awarded a more than $21,000-grant from a national charity group sponsored by the TD Bank Group. The cleanup started immediately, as the site had become a repository for dusty, old research gear.

Instructor and Biology program assistant Jeff Sheedy brought in a plant collection spanning the botanical spectrum: mosses, ferns, primitives, gymnosperms, angiosperms and cycads, among others. New additions to the greenhouse included sweet grass and carnivorous pitcher plants.

Most items were native to Alberta and bought from Calgary-area vendors, although others were special ordered from B.C.

"We've got some of everything now," said Fletcher, who sits on a 20-member greenhouse committee overseeing restoration efforts.

Thanks to the hard work of many volunteers, Biology and Environmental Science classes are now able to visit the greenhouse as part of their studies. A student-led group already uses the greenhouse to start seedlings for the campus' community garden.

Third-year Environmental Science student Shane Steininger developed an affinity for the greenhouse by way of a series of course projects exploring everything from the facility's energy usage to the air quality.

Participating in research projects has enriched Steininger's academic experience.

"There's no substitute for hands-on learning," he said. "Books and studies are great - but they don't compare to an experiential learning experience."
Steininger is proud to be part of the transformation that's taking shape.

"It's a dramatic improvement. It's not even the same greenhouse now as it was six months ago," he said.

There's still plenty of work left to be done. The greenhouse committee is looking at the next steps for the five-room facility, located in an obscure section of the Science and Technology wing.

With additional funding, new equipment could allow students and faculty to perform more hands-on research in ecology, soil sampling and experiments involving composting. Fletcher would like to see science students gain experience through a greenhouse management program.

The possibilities stretch to every corner of the University.

Transitional Vocational Program students could grow plants in this space and sell them to assist with program funding. The Iniskim Centre would have the ability to grow and study more local plants of cultural significance.

There's also potential to establish a children's program to teach gardening to the MRU Kids summer program.

Whatever the future holds for the greenhouse, Fletcher hasn't lost track of her No. 1 priority.

"Students are the most important consideration," she said.

Nov. 10, 2015 - Bryan Weismiller