Student growing zinnias hydroponically for class

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Patrick McDonough ’17, is growing zinnias hydroponically this semester for Delaware Valley University’s Student Research course. McDonough is working independently on the research project, which he chose, while meeting regularly with his advisor Dr. Chris Tipping, interim dean of agriculture and environmental sciences.

“From August to April there is no flower production of zinnias in the fields,” said McDonough, a horticulture major. “To be able to grow flowers out of the season is good for business.”

He started setting his project up in the University’s Arthur Poley Greenhouse Complex in February and should have flowers growing in the hydroponic system, which doesn’t use soil, sometime between the end of April and early May. He wants to see how many flowers he can produce in a small space if he maximizes the flowering of the plants.

Since he’s using the University’s greenhouse and equipment, the $500 funding from the course for supplies covered his set up costs.

If the project is successful, he thinks that it might provide useful information for farmers who are looking to make extra money during colder months.

“When flowers are out of season, you can charge more for them,” said McDonough. “It’s also a good way to source something locally (that would have to come from out of the area during colder months).”

McDonough meets with Dr. Tipping, his faculty advisor, weekly for feedback and to update him on benchmarks and timing of the project.

He is looking to find out if he can grow the flowers more efficiently by delivering nutrients in a very controlled way. Soil can get depleted of nutrients. With the hydroponic system, McDonough can give the plants nutrients to promote growth and then, provide nutrients to promote flowering.

“The course gives you a certain level of freedom," said McDonough of the project. “I’m responsible for getting my work done and setting my own goals. It also builds a relationship with the instructor outside of the classroom. I’m working with Dr. Tipping and getting to know him in my free time.”

Student Research is one of the options in DelVal’s Experience360 Program, which prepares students for the professional world. As a graduation requirement, all of DelVal’s undergraduate students complete the E360 Program and gain real-world experience before graduation.

While the academic part of his project will go through the spring semester, McDonough intends on exploring hydroponics after his final evaluation.

“The beauty of the Student Research course is you do research and then, you have the opportunity to continue to pursue it independently,” said McDonough.

He thinks the experience he is gaining will be useful going forward as a young professional.

“The zinnias are a good trial run for opening doors for other hydroponic production possibilities,” said McDonough. “A lot of greenhouses are looking for unique ways to produce in the off-season where there’s kind of a lull. If you’re able to diversify what you’re producing it helps with sustainability.”