Customizing a Greenhouse to Grow 5,700 Plant Species

Riverbanks Zoo and Garden needed a new growing facility to accommodate everything from bedding plants to trees.

Many research facilities, schools and botanical gardens have greenhouses, and most have specific needs that set them apart from commercial production facilities. They may be located in an area that’s difficult to access such as in a courtyard or between buildings or need to have high roofs to accommodate tall tropicals. Because a significant number of Stuppy Greenhouse’s customers are educational or research facilities, Stuppy engineers are well versed in adapting or creating designs to be truly custom to meet these requirements.

Riverbanks Zoo upgraded from its 30-year old Quonset houses (inset) to four of Stuppy’s gutter-connected CS3 greenhouses.

The Riverbanks Zoo and Garden’s new greenhouse range in Columbia, SC, is a recent example. The zoo and its gardens occupy 100 acres that are home to the animals along with more than 5,700 species of plants, including tropicals, roses, bulbs, shrubs, trees, vines, perennials and bedding plants – both native and exotic. Many of these are propagated and grown on site along with thousands of plants for the annual plant sale.

In 2021, zoo officials made the decision to demolish the 30-year-old aging, poly-covered, technology-free Quonset structures and replace them with modern greenhouses.

“The old greenhouses had been re-covered many times, and we were at the point where it needed to be done again along with some other updates,” says Eric Shealy, Greenhouse and Nursery Supervisor at Riverbanks. “We decided to replace them, because we really needed to get into the twenty-first century with technology such as an environmental control system and motorized shade curtains. We were still getting on ladders to adjust thermostats and had no remote warning system if temperatures were too high or low.”

Riverbanks contracted with Stuppy to build four gutter-connected CS3 greenhouses, and construction began in February 2022.

Working Through Challenges as a Team

Internal motorized shade curtains save labor, but zoo staff requested manual watering due to the diversity of plants housed in the greenhouse.

The new structures needed to be placed onto the concrete footprint of the old ones, which posed a few challenges. Having the concrete floor and drainage system already in place was a big cost savings, but the space was smaller than a standard CS3 greenhouse. Shrinking the size meant 9’ column-and-truss spacing instead of 12’, and smaller benches needed to be crafted to be put into one of the houses.

“The Stuppy team worked closely with us on everything to make sure any compromises we needed to make to fit the footprint would still work well with our needs,” Shealy says.

Several other challenges needed to be overcome. Covid-caused supply chain disruptions had not fully resolved. The high water table underneath the greenhouse caused difficulty drilling holes for the footings. In addition, Riverbanks is in two counties and receives city funding, meaning approvals were more complicated.

“Our builder, Scott Long, from Stuppy, was phenomenal,” says Andy Cabe, Director of Horticulture at Riverbanks. “He was able to make changes right in the field if necessary, and he did a really great job. He’s been building greenhouses forever and knows what works. He and Neil Devaney, Stuppy’s Territorial Sales Manager, worked really well together and with us. We’ve had a long-term relationship with Neil, even though this was our first Stuppy project. It was a symbiotic relationship. Everybody was working together to get the project complete and done the right way and we ended up with a nice, finished product.”

Improved Greenhouse Performance = Healthier Plants

Construction was finished in February 2023, and both Shealy and Cabe are happy with the new greenhouses, saying plant quality has improved dramatically. A full mist bench with Stuppy’s Heat2O-BT Hydronic Heat rather than a patchwork of heating mats, means more consistent germination and faster rooting. “It’s actually shocking how fast cuttings root compared to the old system,” Cabe says. “Better light transmission through the polycarbonate glazing also contributes to better plant health.”

A full mist bench with Stuppy’s Heat2O-BT Hydronic Heat provides more consistent germination and faster rooting.

Shealy says the biggest difference for him has been the ability to grow using DIF cycling. “I can bring the temperatures down lower at night now that we have automated environmental controls,” he says. “Before I would have had to physically come back to the greenhouse and turn the thermostat down in the evening and then back up at 4:00 a.m. Now it’s automatic, and the plants stay more compact and just look healthier.”

In the previous greenhouse, shade curtains needed to be pulled by hand, so the Stuppy’s internal motorized system in the new structure is a labor-saver. What hasn’t changed though, is the manual watering.

“We know we’re different than most production greenhouses in that we still water with a wand and a hose,” Shealy says. “But we have so many types of plants with different moisture needs all in the same area, we have to do it manually.”

The peace of mind that comes from having a system that continuously monitors temperature and provides alerts when parameters are exceeded is invaluable, Shealy says. “To be able to monitor and check the temperature from wherever you are is such a huge improvement. We don’t have to keep going in to check—especially in the winter. And, if we have snow, we know the Stuppy greenhouses are far more structurally stable than the old houses. The greenhouses have performed wonderfully this season —we’re really happy with the final product.”

For information on how to build or upgrade your greenhouse to meet your precise needs, reach out to Stuppy’s expert sales team.