It Took A City To Raise A Greenhouse

Paul Bass PhotoRobert Rouse’s scallions sprung up from his bed in a Newhallvile community garden—along with a new greenhouse steps away that a broader community came together to plant.

Rouse (pictured) showed up Wednesday afternoon to the community garden at Ivy Street and Shelton Avenue, where he has grown vegetables for the past three years.

A crowd of people from around the city joined him there to celebrate the opening of the passive-solar-heated greenhouse, which will allow neighbors like Rouse to grow vegetables more months a year, at a lower cost.

The 20-month quest to build the greenhouse—including a rebuilding effort when the roof collapsed during last winter’s storms—reflected the flowering of community gardens throughout Newhallville in recent years. (Click here to read about that.) Hazel Williams started the craze decades ago, organizing block watch members to plant in their front yards in a successful effort to gain control of Pond Street. Williams doesn’t live near enough to the Shelton-Ivy garden to participate, but she showed up to Wednesday’s event to celebrate. “This is more beautiful than what we did,” she said.

The building of the greenhouse also showed “what it really means to be a community—to have so many groups working together on something sustainable,” Mayor Toni Harp (pictured) told the gathering before grabbing a pair of ceremonial oversized scissors to try along with Livable City Initiative (LCI) director, Erik Johnson, and Neighborhood Housing Services (NHS) chief Jim Paley to cut the ribbon to the new greenhouse’s entrance. The scissors malfunctioned. “It’s like trying to cut a budget,” quipped Johnson. “It’s not as easy as it looks.” The group eventually ditched the scissors and just opened the door. (Click the video to watch.)

The seeds for the greenhouse idea were planted in October of 2012 when some Newhallville neighbors attended a D.C. community-organizing conference along with staffers from NHS, a not-for-profit that restores neglected old homes then helps working-class neighbors buy them. At the conference, held by an organization named NeighborWorks, groups were encouraged to come up with a project to take on in their communities. The Newhallville contingent suggested the greenhouse.

NeighborWorks provided a little planning money, recalled Stephen Cremin-Endes, an NHS “community building specialist” who took on a coordinating role for the project. A groundbreaking took place the following October. All sorts of other groups eventually pitched in to help, he said: United Way arranged for the Walsh-PCL construction firm to donate concrete for the foundation and put it in. LCI chipped in about $11,000. The Newhallville gardeners put in volunteer labor to help build the greenhouse, along with teens involved in a Solar Youth after-school program at St. Andrews Episcopal Church across the street. Students from Lincoln-Bassett School (also across the street) and Common Ground High School volunteered, as well. In all, over 75 people contributed their time or money or labor to the project, keeping the total cost to around $18,000, according to Cremin-Endes. And when the center of the roof collapsed this winter, bringing down a third of the walls, the manufacturer, SunGlo, sent replacement materials and better supports, for free.

Fernando Pastor donated his services as a design specialist. Under his direction, the crew reused cement slabs unearthed during the project (from when a house once stood on the spot) as stones for the entryway. “These are 100-year-old oysters that we found in the basement of 250 Crown,” Pastor said, referring to a building renovation he’s working on downtown with Pike International for Yale’s Baker’s Dozen singing group.

The door at the greenhouse entrance used to be part of a home in Westchester. Pastor (pictured) found it at Urban Miners in Hamden. He found wood discarded from other construction sites for the frame above the doorway.

The crew put in PVC pipes underground to connect to a pipe at the crest of the roof. Solar panel fans will blow hot air down to those pipes to heat the ground during the winter, Pastor said.

Meanwhile, gutters will direct rainwater into barrels inside the greenhouse, which will absorb and retain heat to warm the inside of the greenhouse during the coldest weather. “This,” Pastor proclaimed, “is off the grid.”

The result: Gardeners like Robert Rouse will be able to grow vegetables for up to 10 months a year, rather than the current six months. “We’re going to make sure we have a lot growing in our neighborhood—winter, spring, summer, and fall,” said Newhallville Alder Delphine Clyburn (pictured) told the gathering. Gardeners will also be able to grow from seed, in the greenhouse, rather than have to purchase plants elsewhere. So rather than pay $6 for a single tomato plant at an area farm, Rouse will be able to purchase a packet of seeds for, say, $1.39, and get 20 plants in the deal, saving around $120 on that vegetable alone, Cremin-Endes estimated.

Rouse, a retired truck driver, grows a lot more than tomatoes. “This row here is scallions,” he said. “Half this row is mustard greens; half is turnips.” He continued through all nine rows, pointing out budding bell peppers, cabbage, and collard greens.

Malcom Welfare graced the crowd with a rendition of the national anthem—a capella, off the grid.

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posted by: Noteworthy on June 19, 2014  12:32pm

Terrific singing! Great project! Time to duplicate!

posted by: poetbum on June 19, 2014  1:27pm

Nice work by everyone involved.  That’s a serious greenhouse they got there.