Self-watering planters sow seeds of sustainability across campus

Contact: Erin Flynn

A photo of red and orange flowers.KALAMAZOO, Mich.—A planting project with roots in sustainability is blossoming at Western Michigan University. Crews from Landscape Services have potted and placed 66 self-watering planters across campus to not only make Western more beautiful but also more eco-friendly.

Funded by a Student Sustainability Grant from Western's Office for Sustainability, the project will dramatically reduce labor, fuel and maintenance costs for Landscape Services as well as water usage. The planters are made of recycled plastic and carpet and include a reservoir to hold water as well as a moisture-wicking system.

David Prellwitz carries a self-watering planter.

David Prellwitz carries one of the self-watering planters.

"The carpet helps bring the water up from the bottom to the soil," says David Prellwitz, a groundskeeper who co-wrote the grant as an undergraduate in February 2020. "And because of the type of soil and fertilizer we can use with these planters, our plants can grow larger."

Previous planters around campus had holes in the bottom, which allowed water and nutrients to escape. It meant they needed to be watered three to four times a week—sometimes daily in the hot summer weather. The new pots will only need water every two to three weeks on average.

"These are self-contained. When we fill them with water, we can add fertilizer and it won't leak out all over the ground and into the drains," says Rhonda Cosby, master gardener. "We're helping keep fertilizers out of Arcadia Creek, which is fantastic."

Cosby is also working with Gibbs House to begin incorporating compost from food scraps collected by Dining Services into the planters. It will add another layer of sustainability to the project, which also involved growing annuals at the Finch Greenhouse in the Department of Biological Sciences rather than using extra resources to purchase and transport the flowers from external vendors—the 11th year for such a collaboration. And it was no small task—3,600 small plants arrived at the greenhouse in mid-March.

"Rhonda and her team did all the transplanting, then it was handed off to me for the next 10 weeks to finish the plants through watering, fertilizing, pest inspections and pruning," says Chris Jackson, director of Finch Greenhouse, who worked with Cosby ahead of time to get all of the pots and flats ready to go. "The biggest challenge was space or, more specifically, lack of space; 3,600 small plants is easy at first, but they grow! And grow fast."

A Landscape Services crew member kneels beside a planter, adding soil for a plant.

Flowers grown in Finch Greenhouse are planted in the self-watering planters.

Jackson spent time spacing out and shuffling the plants around weekly to ensure proper air flow. When all was said and done, half of Finch Greenhouse was packed with annuals for campus.

"It was a total team effort between Finch Greenhouse, Landscape Services and the Office for Sustainability," Jackson says. "All three were vital to make this happen."

Landscape Services as a whole is working to implement more sustainability practices across the department.

"They keep WMU beautiful. They harvest and plant seeds, plant trees and boost biodiversity on campus," says Jeff Spoelstra, director of the Office for Sustainability, noting that the grant program supports innovation and new ideas that often become new norms at WMU. "They care for pollinators, maintain outdoor classrooms and are transitioning away from fossil fuels toward battery-powered landscaping equipment."

Growing Passion

Rhonda Cosby is surrounded by baskets of pink flowers.

Rhonda Cosby stands among the flowers at the Department of Biological Sciences' Finch Greenhouse.

Both Cosby and Prellwitz were nontraditional students at Western. Prellwitz was hired as a cook in Dining Services when he decided to pursue a degree in food service administration. He had an associate's degree in culinary arts and a love of food, but his passion was ignited when he transferred to a job in Landscape Services.

"When I came over to Landscape Services, the focus really shifted. My co-workers have taught me a lot, not just about landscaping but about native plants in Michigan," says Prellwitz, who graduated with a bachelor's degree in food service administration in May 2020. "I found my passion doing this, and it's strange because I never thought this is something that I would end up doing."

Cosby's career at Western began in Custodial Services. Transferring to the Landscaping Services team was an eye-opening moment for her as well. She remembers now-retired natural areas and preserves manager Steve Keto schooling her on the impacts certain materials and practices can have on the environment.

"I never thought about it that way. I thought, 'Oh my God, I am a horrible person! My granddaughter is going to grow up and she's not going to have any of this beautiful green landscape!'" she says. "There was so much I learned that needs to change that I was oblivious to. And at that point, I decided I was going back to school and I was going to get my degree and learn as much as I could."

A large gray planter with flowers in it.

A new planter in front of Wood Hall.

Her courses allowed her to realign her purpose and cultivate her passion for the environment, which now resonates in her work as a master gardener.

"I might be a tiny pebble, but I'm hoping my ripples have an effect and I notice it," says Cosby, her voice cracking with emotion. "(Projects like) this are what I did it for. I want people to be aware. When these gardeners are working with the planters and someone walking by says, 'Wow, that's a really neat pot!' they can explain what it is. So, this is making ripples. I'm excited!"

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