County continues to grow during the new year

New building, program on the docket for Office of Sustainability

The Office of Sustainability is looking to continue its efforts of growing vegetables, plant and more for use and donation around the county, while also launching new programs.

Despite a lack of snow across South Jersey this winter season, the cold weather and frigid temperatures still prevent the flourishing of plants, crops and other growth in Camden County.

For several years, the county has found a 21st-century way of getting around the seasonal  barrier: It prepares and provides various plants and vegetables to nonprofits and county groups through the use of a hydroponics greenhouse that needs no soil, as well as a traditional greenhouse at its Lakeland Campus.

Through the Office of Sustainability, master gardeners and staff use advanced growing techniques to provide nonprofits and other organizations such as The Cathedral Kitchen and The Philadelphia Zoo lettuce, cherry tomatoes, herbs and more items throughout the year.

Careful use of energy, light and temperature allow for heads of lettuce to be grown in as little as one month from plant to harvest, with the fastest batch growing in just 12 days, according to members of the office.

The Office of Sustainability also helps grow various items such as perennials, herbs and  annuals in an adjacent greenhouse at the Lakeland complex, watching over 225 different varieties, according to Robin Tustin, lead coordinator of greenhouse operations.

Over 100 volunteers help make the operations at the greenhouse possible, caring for the growths after the county plants seeds in January. Plants are placed throughout the Camden County Park System across South Jersey as well as various additional locations.

“In the beginning of the year, we started in here, planting the seeds dependent on when is best for each individual plant,” Tustin said. “However, what we’re doing this year is we’re growing them a little earlier, so that they may be able to propagate a few of them to make new plants with them.

“That would give us even more plants.”

By April or May, the greenhouse will have grown hundreds of plants that can be replanted in natural soil to beautify local parks or be used during events by the county. Meanwhile, the location itself continues to provide a showcase for those interested in learning about sustainability, gardening and the environment, among other topics.

“They also provide for the beautification of this location as well, because this is beginning to develop as a showcase for the county,” Tustin noted. “It’s another building that provides a learning experience for the community and for residents.”

Camden County Freeholder Jonathan Young has long been a supporter of various programs undertaken by the Office of Sustainability, including its hydroponics garden, tool library and bike-sharing program. He hopes residents in the area continue to see its impact.

“We’re talking about reducing our carbon footprint in a variety of ways with what they do down there,” Young explained. “For the greenhouses, we’re growing our own stock down there, which is not only sustainable but also financially responsible because we’re growing them ourselves and not having to buy them from elsewhere.”

Moving forward, Young says the county expects to start construction sometime in March for an approximately 5,000-square-foot building at Lakeland for educational and multi-purpose use. The building will include a kitchen and a classroom/learning area.

A major benefit of the building, Young says, will be the fact that lettuce and other vegetables harvested from the hydroponics greenhouse can be stored there. Current harvests must be transported to recipients fairly quickly due to a lack of space and storage capability.

“This way we don’t have to rush it out,” Young said. “We’ll be able to stock up and grow a little bit more because we’ll be able to store it in that building with refrigerator boxes.”

The county also wants to start a toy library alongside its tool library, which would allow for parents and children to visit the location to play with new and gently used toys. The county foresees a March start-up date, while a collection is ongoing to create a catalog for the potential program.