Planting a seed: uOttawa greenhouse project helps students and community gardens grow

Michelle Brazeau (left) and Curtis Fowke (middle) delivering plants to community partner Holly Gordon
Michelle Brazeau (left) and Curtis Fowke (middle) delivering plants to community partner Holly Gordon (the University of Ottawa community gardens). Photo credit: University of Ottawa
Mandated for research and teaching, the greenhouses of the Faculty of Science at the University of Ottawa are typically bursting with colors and housing plants of all kinds throughout the year. But sometimes, between semesters and classes, certain bays can sit empty, such as one of the bays on the rooftop of the Bioscience building this spring. With this in mind, Greenhouse Coordinator Michelle Brazeau and Dr. Allyson MacLean, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Biology, saw an opportunity for students wanting to volunteer and help people in need.

They developed a project to grow seedlings to donate to the community to help people start their own garden. By mid-May, the fruits of their labor led to a space filled with dozens of trays of tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, kale, peppers, eggplants, peas, and herbs seedlings – just to name a few.

“We had that little window where we could squeeze that in, and it brought high rewards. It gave us a chance to give back to the community,” explained Michelle Brazeau.

“The pandemic played a role. It underlined food insecurity in the community,” she added. “Also, a lot of people got into gardening over the pandemic, so there was a lot of interest. With students and volunteers, a lot of them are more acutely aware of what gardening is, how much work it takes, and they are interested.”

Plants in the uOttawa greenhouse
Plants in the uOttawa greenhouse. Photo credit: Michelle Brazeau

A small-scale project that quickly blossomed

“We were thinking about how we could optimize and use the space and it happened to coincide with the springtime. And maybe I got a little carried away!” laughs the greenhouse coordinator.

In all, about 1600 plants were recently distributed to four community partners: the University of Ottawa community gardens, the John Howard Society, Just Foods, and Partage Vanier, who will take care of them for the rest of the summer.

“All of the partners were very keen on the idea, very interested, excited and grateful for anything that we could give,” said Brazeau.

uOttawa greenhouse coordinator and project co-initiator Michelle Brazeau.
uOttawa greenhouse coordinator and project co-initiator Michelle Brazeau. Photo credit: University of Ottawa

Seeds, patience and student participation

The seed germination process started at the end of March. Next came potting, transplanting, fertilizing, and watering daily, including weekends.

Michelle Brazeau donated seeds from her collection, and discretionary funds were used to purchase soil. Available pots and trays we reused. They also needed a few pairs of hands to tend to the plants with help coming from undergraduate student volunteers like Curtis Fowke, who, like Michelle Brazeau, donated their time. This was instrumental to the success of the project, according to Dr. Allyson MacLean.

Students also benefited from the initiative, acquiring hands-on horticultural skills and experience.

“Something like taking care of plants, learning the basics of how to grow plants in a greenhouse environment, how to take care of it, fertilize it, that’s a really great place to start. This is a different experience than what we’ve been able to offer our students before,” said Dr. MacLean who leads a research lab that focuses on plant-microbe interactions. “We’re really trying to reinvigorate the plant science field and interest and research in the biology department. And this is just part of this. This is giving students an experience they wouldn’t have had a few years ago.”

They expect the project to continue annually and hope their initiative will serve as an example.

“I would encourage other universities to consider whether they can do something similar and donate back to the community and give this opportunity to students,” MacLean concluded.

Some of the plants that were delivered to community partners
Some of the plants that were delivered to community partners. Photo credit: University of Ottawa

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