Blazing the trail for a greener campus: Chloe Tomblin '19 revives campus greenhouse

Blazing the trail for a greener campus: Chloe Tomblin '19 revives campus greenhouse

On winter days like these, the greenhouse feels like a miniature oasis. There's a gentle humidity in the air, courtesy of a swamp cooler and two space heaters. The air is fresh and clean, and all around you, there is life -- hanging ferns, looming potted plants with wide spread leaves, cheerful budding fuchsias. It's a riot of green and spots of color, the kind you find in a garden that is happy and thriving. On top of all of that, a nearby water filtering system keeps the sound of babbling water in the air. All together, it's quite serene.

A year ago, the small facility attached to Wilson Hall was used for storage, until one student took the opportunity to make Reserve a little more green.

Chloe Tomblin '19 applied to the Compass program with the hope to grow plants inside the greenhouse and to bring back the community garden, located in the back fields near the WRA stadium. Specifically, she'd grow plants that could be harvested and delivered to Ellsworth Dining Hall.

"Right now, I have microgreens growing, a container of basil, some rosemary and a mini bell pepper plant," Tomblin said, gesturing around the lush greenhouse. Once the warmer months come, she plans to transfer these plants to the community garden. Michael Weinzierl '11 added that a majority of the plants currently occupying the greenhouse were donated by the WRA community or given for overwintering.

There have been two deliveries of microgreens to the dining hall this year, with the first harvest taking place on December 13, 2018, and the second on January 25, 2019.

"What's better than food grown here?" said Chef Eddie Mundy, WRA's Director of Dining Services. "And by the community themselves! I think it's amazing. What's more, the microgreens have been very tasty, well cared for and delivered in great shape so it's been a pleasure to use them. I think it's super cool and really neat that it's so student driven and I'm glad Chloe reached out about having us use them. I can't wait to get more culinary gifts to play with!"

Mundy commended both Tomblin and Weinzierl for their enthusiasm and hard work, and all three are excited by the growing potential to bring more locally sourced food into the dining hall's kitchen. There's even plans to put a composting project together to repurpose a portion of the dining hall waste to organically fuel the garden, which has been generously funded by WRA's Dads Club.

The first batch of microgreens landed in the Chef's Whim station, as a bright garnish for a decadent beef cheek and cavatelli dish.

"It was the perfect adornment as it brought a fresh, light counterpart to the comfort dish," described Mundy.

The second batch was used for lunch on Tuesday, Jan. 29 -- a colorful addition to Chef Ben Baragry's barley risotto dish.

"Honestly, Ben got lucky I was doing juicy lucy burgers today at the Whim, or I would have swiped them for my station!" joked Mundy.

For Tomblin, these stops in the dining hall aren't just about reaching major milestones for her Compass project -- they are the fulfillment of a wish she made in her first months at school.

"When I came to Reserve as a new junior, I really wanted to make the campus more environmentally friendly and sustainable," explained Tomblin. "I felt that bringing back the greenhouse was one was I could do that. It's this awesome space that wasn't being used, so I decided it would be a great way to kickstart a larger movement at Reserve. Plus, I think it's given Earth Initiative a base, and now we're able to start working on other projects too."

Her fellow Earth Initiative members have been helpful in keeping up with the greenhouse garden, and Tomblin has been teaching a select few how to care and tend the plants inside. She's had a bit of a green thumb for a while now, thanks to the hours spent working alongside her mother in the garden of their South Carolina home. She even gleaned some experience in her elementary school, which kept a community garden.

But her passion for nature goes far beyond the scope of gardening. Some of her best memories from childhood were spent outdoors. There were afternoons spent in her grandmother's garden, picking ripe green beans and tomatoes. Inside an imaginary world -- "girls world!" -- she and her friends would build houses out of sticks in their backyards.

"I spent so much time outside as a kid," she said happily. "And as I got older, I kind of realized that the outdoors was a place where I found a kind of spirituality. I've always felt so accepted and connected when I'm outside. And as I've gotten even older, I've seen how it's another way we need to give a voice to the voiceless. It's so important to protect the environment, so the more I can do, the better."

This year, Earth Initiative has run a crayola recycling program and a technology recycling program. Tomblin hopes to put together an electricity competition between the dorms to educate the community about energy usage and smart ways to conserve. With each new project, the club endeavors to shed a little more light on nature's plights and how to act responsibly and with care.

"I think we have a responsibility to take care of the earth," said Tomblin. "As an educational institution, Reserve must make sure that people know that how they act matters and has an impact on the world."

"I believe a connection to nature is a connection to oneself," added Weinzierl. "We come from nature, and the farther we stray from nature, the farther we stray from our own identity. Being able to come here is, for me, a grounding experience - the air feels cleaner, more fresh, and the vibrancy is just a nice thing for my health - spiritually, mentally and physically."

The work that's been done so far, both in the greenhouse and through Earth Initiative's other projects, is no small feat! But there's more in store for Tomblin and Weinzierl, both of whom look forward to the work ahead of them. Perhaps come springtime, their garden will expand to include tomatoes, potatoes, squash, lettuce, garlic, new herbs or some potted fruit plants.

Whatever the next step may be, Tomblin and Weinzierl will have the community's proud support behind them.

"I can't think of any other place where I'd be able to just start growing things in a greenhouse to give to the dining hall," said Tomblin. "We've had so much support for a club, and I'm so happy that I've found individuals here who have really inspired me and whom I really admire. It's so refreshing to have people care about the things that you do! It feels so nice to have people that care about you and care about what you're doing and I think that's really unique to Reserve - having individuals - both students and faculty - that are really invested in you. I'm so thankful."