Planting Seeds for Growth: PGF’s Year in Review

2023 was a year of growth in the Danforth Center’s Plant Growth Facility (PGF), and not only for the thousands of plants that our horticulturists cared for over the past 12 months. PGF’s amenities, networks, and team members have also been growing alongside them. As we enter 2024, we’re reflecting on a few highlights from another successful year.

Celebrating 100 Growth Chambers

The expert PGF staff provides exceptional plant care and best-in-class resources for scientific research and collaboration. One of the facility’s most notable features are its growth chambers, which are highly specialized rooms that allow for precise climate controls like temperature, humidity, and lighting adjustments. This year, PGF reached a major milestone with the installation of its 100th growth chamber! 

“Because of the incredibly high demand for PGF growth chambers, we were in great need of more but had run out of available space to install them,” says Kevin Reilly, director of the facility. “We found an opportunity in a storage area in the Bellwether Plant Growth Facility and renovated that room to perfectly fit five new Conviron GEN1000 growth chambers, bringing the total of reservable plant growth chambers up to 100.”  The project was a collaborative effort, with PGF Maintenance Manager Ian Lastarria leading the space renovation and installation process and Growth Chamber Facilities Manager, Kris Haines, overseeing the startup and plant care for the new chambers.

With the installation of these five new Conviron GEN1000 growth chambers, the PGF team reached a milestone 100 growth chambers in 2023.

Conviron’s GEN1000 model is a reach-in growth chamber that is flexible in how the shelves, air flow, and lighting can be configured to accommodate a wide variety of projects. “Because of the ever-evolving nature of plant science research and the diverse needs of PGF users, flexibility of chamber design in addition to advanced environmental control capabilities are features that define our site,” Kevin explained. All five of the GEN100 chambers are already fully operational and are being used by Danforth Center scientists and commercial partners in the 39 North Innovation District. 

Altogether, the PGF staff manages 100 plant growth chambers, 50 greenhouses, and 7 other controlled-environment rooms with uses such as seed storage and biomass drying.

Greenhouse Manager Daniel Long harvests tomatoes in one of the 50 greenhouses managed by PGF staff.

Greenhouse Manager Shines at Major North American Conference

In addition to expanding plant growth space, PGF staff is expanding their network. The Association of Education and Research Greenhouse Curators (AERGC), welcomed Greenhouse Manager Aileen Kidwell to its annual conference in August. AERGC connects greenhouse professionals from across the United States and Canada to build relationships, continue education, and share knowledge about greenhouse management. Each year, the conference is held at a different growing facility, where participants have the chance to tour the greenhouses and learn from colleagues’ presentations. 

This year, Aileen was awarded a competitive travel grant and selected to present at the conference in East Lansing, Michigan. In her presentation, she shared how PGF staff adjusted and ultimately improved their operations during the COVID-19 pandemic. Aileen relayed examples about how the experience required the team to streamline all their processes in a way that was ultimately helpful. She shared recommendations for digital task management tools, accommodating virtual communications both internally and externally, and restructuring the team to be more effective. 

Greenhouse Manager Aileen Kidwell was selected to present at the annual Association of Education and Research Greenhouse Curators conference in Wisconsin this summer.

“It was neat to connect with everyone at the conference and to compare our facilities with the other facilities that I learned about,” Aileen said. “I didn’t realize it was so uncommon to have so many automated operating systems!”

Building on the Momentum

With new facilities, optimized management systems, and a stellar staff, the PGF team has set themselves up for continued growth in the new year. 

“We’ve got a really great team; everyone is super nice, knowledgeable, and helpful,” Aileen says. “With this fresh start, I’m excited to have the time to focus on the icing on the cake things—building up more efficient systems for our researchers, trying to make more streamlined processes, moving the appropriate processes to electronic formats, etc.”

Danforth Center scientists (from left) Dilip Shah, Jennette Codjoe, and Arnaud thierry Djami tchatchou inspect plants in one of the PGF growth chambers. PGF’s expert team provides care to plants like these year-round.

There are also plans to break ground on expanded office space for the PGF team in 2024. The new offices will be directly adjacent to the greenhouses, bringing the team closer to their primary workspace and adding on much-needed meeting rooms and restrooms.

“Our safety, phenotyping, and PGF teams will finally be able to have a shared space,” says Aileen. “Right now, we are spread out in separate areas throughout the facility. With the new offices, we’ll all be localized. We’ll be more easily able to see each other face to face, ask questions, and communicate.”

An aerial shot shows part of PGF, aglow with grow lights at night. A new construction project will expand office space for the PGF team, granting them more efficient access to the greenhouse complex.

Increasing opportunities for open communication with the PGF team is one of their goals going forward. In 2023, PGF staff established “office hours,” an open time slot on Tuesdays at 10 a.m. where several members of the PGF team are available in the McDonnell Lower Atrium for meetups, questions, or brainstorming. The new practice will continue into the new year. “We want to be more available and present for our clients,” Aileen says. “We are trying to get ourselves out there and bridge any gaps between departments.”

As the PGF team embraces a fresh start, they are looking forward to a year of continued growth, efficiency, and strengthened connections in 2024.