There’s no money to take care of the city’s greenhouses, so a group of volunteers spent hours weeding in the heat Wednesday.
They emptied dozens of boxes of dead plants, hoed out weeds that had engulfed the flower beds and attempted to finish the work that was once done by the equivalent of seven full-time people every week.
“What you’re seeing is what happens when you don’t have people here every day,” said Chris Logue, executive director of Cornell Cooperative Extension of Schenectady County.
He used to have two staffers at the Central Park greenhouses. They were paid through a Department of Social Services grant, through which they taught horticulture to welfare recipients.
The trainees worked a total of 150 to 200 hours a week — the equivalent of five full-time workers. But DSS cut funding this year, and the program ground to halt when Cooperative Extension could not find any other grants. That meant the flowers usually grown to adorn city property were abandoned. Cooperative Extension staffers managed to grow seedlings for the Roots and Wisdom vegetable gardens, but most of the greenhouses were left empty.
Logue said the loss of the educational program meant more than just a loss of flowers.
“The difference this facility made in the lives of people involved with DSS,” he said, citing the job-readiness skills they learned, as well as nutrition and parenting skills.
“We would sort of take people by the hand,” he said. “I think our staff approached it with a little bit more compassion and tried to bring out their best.”
Without them, the area was quickly overtaken by weeds.
“It’s so sad,” said Cooperative Extension educator Denise Kolankowski as she dug out weeds by their roots. “And this has been the year of the perfect weed growth.”
In other years Kolankowski has taught children at the greenhouses how to nurture seeds and explained that they can’t grow an orange tree in this climate. She’s watched them listen to her explanations about soil again and again and only finally understand her when they begin planting their own seeds.
“They need to see it,” she said.
Master Gardener Robert Smith, who volunteers his time teaching children how to grow vegetables, said adults need to know how to plant their own food.
“I’m sad to see that we have eliminated a lot of things” at the greenhouses, he said. “It’s an educational process we’ve got to teach our kids.”
Angie Tompkins, the Cooperative Extension staffer who manages the volunteer master gardener program, said the cuts came just as interest in gardening began to boom.
“There’s such an interest in the community now in knowing how to grow your own food,” she said. “We’d like to continue to offer those programs.”
Cornell needs $75,000 to keep the greenhouses running — $50,000 to restore the educational programs and $25,000 to heat the structures. Logue warned that the heat cannot be turned off, even for one winter, or the greenhouses will be destroyed.
He turns on the heat before storms to melt the snow and ice off the glass panes of the greenhouse roofs.
“You can get enough snow and ice load to knock the structure down,” he said. “I’ve never really realized before I worked here that glass will bend.”
Once, upon discovering the bending glass, he tried to pull the snow off with a roof rake.
“You’d touch it and the glass would break because it was under that much stress,” he said.