UNC-Chapel Hill staff, faculty, students and friends celebrated the opening of a new solar greenhouse at the Carolina Campus Community Garden on Friday, April 21, as part of the University’s Earth Week celebration.
The ribbon-cutting ceremony included an outdoor reception outside the garden, accompanied by a series of speeches by Provost Jim Dean, Associate Vice Chancellor for Campus Enterprises Brad Ives, as well as others involved in the project and a tour of the newly installed greenhouse. Located directly off Cameron Avenue on Wilson Street and started in 2010, the Carolina Campus Community Garden (CCCG) grows produce so that low-income employees have access to fresh fruits and vegetables through the shared work of staff, students, faculty and community members. CCCG serves as a learning community for developing gardening skills, healthy living, social responsibility, and interdisciplinary academic pursuits.
The new solar greenhouse will support the garden’s efforts to provide free, fresh fruits and vegetables year-round and will also support a greater quantity and variety of produce at a lower cost. This includes vegetables indigenous to some staff members’ home countries and will make it possible to distribute seedlings to staff so they can grow gardens of their own.
Garden Coordinator Claire Lorch said the greenhouse has been in the works for nearly four years and is valuable because it enables the CCCG to grow seedlings before planting them directly in the soil.
“The reason to grow seedlings as opposed to just limiting it to seeds is it takes a lot to grow, say, a tomato from seed out here,” Lorch said. “There are certain other plants like peppers or eggplants that just do better when you start them in a greenhouse.”
Lorch said she has grown seedlings in her own home for several years before the greenhouse was built.
In 2013, CCCG got permission to expand and came up with the plan that would include a place for the greenhouse. The garden had to get permission not only from the University, but also the town of Chapel Hill.
Lorch said two special factors had to be considered for a greenhouse plan to be approved.
“We knew it had to be beautiful, because we’re in the Chapel Hill Historic District,” she said. “And it had to be moveable, in case CCCG ever had to relocate — everything on this garden has to be moveable.”
Lorch said because there is no electricity on the garden site and sustainability is such a high priority at UNC, a solar powered greenhouse was the only option.
This is when the Renewable Energy Special Projects Committee, commonly known as RESPC, took on the project to help CCCG. They provided the much needed funding for the project, allocating money they manage from the $4.00 Green Fee that all students pay each semester.
After several years of idea sharing and plan readjustments, a final, approved proposal of the fully solar-powered structure was designed by Philip Szostak, whose recent projects also include the Durham Performing Arts Center.
Szostak did the work for CCCG pro bono because he likes to give back to the neighborhood whenever he can, and wanted any funds available for the building to be used for materials.
Eli Murrey, co-chairperson of RESPC, said the greenhouse is a unique asset for CCCG and gave further input on the technicalities of the structure.
“This isn’t your standard sustainability project,” Murrey said. “There’s a lot of pieces in the Carolina community and this is an example of what can happen when those pieces come together,”
The roof of the greenhouse is equipped with both photovoltaic (PV) and solar thermal panels, he said. The PV runs the fan to regulate the greenhouse temperature, pumps the solar-heated water, and powers an external outlet.
The solar thermal collector has tubing running through it, where water gets heated and then stored in a tank. The hot water is then pumped from the tank through concrete baths that the plant beds sit on, keeping them warm in the cooler months.
Additionally, like all greenhouses, passive solar technology, or the orientation of a structure to the angle of the sun’s path, is utilized to maximize the light and warmth inside the greenhouse. This is achieved through large, south facing windows that allow sunlight into the greenhouse, but trap the ensuing thermal radiation to keep it warm.
The greenhouse is fully functional and CCCG started using it in February, Lorch said. Despite this being the garden’s first season using it, various crops thriving across the garden—chard, leeks, tomatoes, squash—were already grown from seeds in the greenhouse.
For the summer, at least half of what will be grown will be started in the greenhouse, she said.
“This is such a wonderful educational opportunity, and we absolutely love having this onsite,” Lorch said. “It allows us to have our volunteers be part of the beginning of the entire process—growing things from seed.”