BGSU Dining is growing green with hydroponics

The Oaks dining hall pioneers future of sustainable gardening

If this works well, we plan to move and expand across campus.

By Samantha Sharp, Class of 2019

Bowling Green State University Dining is experimenting with hydroponic garden technology in The Oaks dining hall. Hydroponic gardening is different from traditional gardening in that minimal soil and no pesticides are used in the process. Instead, the plants live in water and get nutrients from liquid fertilizers.

In October, BGSU Dining Director Michael Paulus brought a team of dining services faculty together to research hydroponic gardening and the types of systems that would work best in a college environment. The team settled on a five-tower system that will reside in The Oaks, where University dietitian Paige Wieman can keep a close eye on the growing process and students can learn more about the project.

Wieman, a BGSU alumna, has spent her free time contributing to the garden’s success. From seed to harvest, she monitors the health of the plants and has found that the process is “a tedious game of trial and error.”

“We tried to come up with food that Shoots, our vegan station in The Oaks, would actually use,” Wieman said. “I researched what grows well in hydroponic systems and it was mainly lettuces, herbs, some peppers, baby tomatoes and berries.”

Hydroponic plants grow year-round and their growth rate is higher than traditionally farmed plants. Each tower will have different harvesting times, and Wieman expects to collect produce from the five planters about 30-40 times over the course of the year.

Each of the growing towers hosts different plants, but they all require different light intensities in order to grow properly. Dave Beaverson, director of facilities and planning, controls an LED timer system that is programmed to distribute light to the systems depending on each plant’s specific needs. According to Wieman, the red and blue lights within those LED systems help stimulate chlorophyll and growth in the plants.

Hydroponics is the process of growing plants in sand, gravel or liquid with added nutrients, but without significant amounts of soil. The benefits of hydroponics include:

  • 10 percent of normal water use
  • 60 percent less fertilizer used
  • minimal soil use
  • year-round growing season
  • increased growth rate and yield compared to traditional farming
  • zero pesticides or herbicides used

The lights are on a timer and mimic a gradual sunrise and sunset so as not to shock the plants, Beaverson said, but at full power the light is very intense.

The towers contain 10 gallons of distilled water. Because the plants are indoors, they don’t require any additional water.

“We change the water after every harvest, and the towers will get cleaned twice a year with hydrogen peroxide,” Wieman said. “It will break back down to water, so it won’t harm the tower system or make the plants unsafe to eat.

“The first three weeks they are in the tower they receive a liquid fertilizer to help them get to a more vegetative state, and for the next three weeks they receive another liquid formulated to help them grow tall and produce fruits.”

A neutral PH balance is necessary for this type of growing, and they need a PH of 5.5 to 6.0 to survive. The nutrients can throw off the neutral PH balance, which Wieman adjusts with a base or acid solution.

“A good example of a working hydroponic system is at Microsoft headquarters,” said Jon Zachrich, director of dining services marketing and communications. “They have a bank of 20 systems that they use for their dining facilities and staff. If this works well, we plan to move and expand across campus.”

Zachrich said that BGSU’s hydroponic garden is unique because “it is not tied to any college programs like herbalism or any specific botany major.” The garden contributes to sustainability on campus because hydroponic gardening takes up less land, uses 10 percent less water than would be used for plants growing in soil, provides the dining halls with fresh food that could reduce extra food costs, allows better environmental control and may reduce the amount of greenhouse gasses associated with traditional crop production.

For health reasons, the hydroponic garden area will be roped off so dining hall guests will not be able to touch or contaminate the plants. In the future Wieman and Zachrich intend to incorporate harvests from the garden in The Oaks’ teaching kitchen, and eventually serve the ripened plants at Shoots.

The array of towers is already attracting interest from diners, and Wieman is excited for the positive impact the garden could have.

“College gardens can be good for mental health and stress relief, because students feel like they are involved and get to take care of something,” she said. Any students interested in additional information about hydroponic gardening or are curious about the progress of the plants can contact Wieman at her office in The Oaks.

“There’s something very rewarding about growing something from a seed to harvest, and I think if students can be involved in that or just watch the growing process, that would encourage them to eat more healthy options,” Wieman said.