SIGNAL PEAK — The greenhouse at Central Arizona College’s Signal Peak Campus sits on the far north of the site, nestled near the mountains and behind the new Drive48 training facility.

For a year and a half, during which CAC was closed to the public, the greenhouse lay dormant, growing weeds and attracting critters, until this summer, when an intensive cleanup effort began to prepare for the 2021-22 school year.

At last, on Monday, the greenhouse was reopened to students as part of a lecture in Ag Science 101 “The World of Plants.” Not even the tragic death of the greenhouse’s former caretaker, local nursery owner Phil Bond, was able to stop the garden from coming back to life.

“At the beginning of the summer, under those tables was nothing but weeds,” said Diana Hutchison, an agribusiness student at CAC who took a campus job with the Agriculture Department to help clean up the facilities. “The campus was closed for quite some time. Nothing was being watered so it was just struggling.”

Hutchison came to the greenhouse and the surrounding outdoor classroom areas three to four days a week beginning in June to tidy up and revive the plants. By that time, Bond was ill and could no longer regularly care for the plants there.

“This greenhouse is a project he put a lot of time and effort into,” Hutchison said of Bond. “A few weeks before he passed, Phil was up here with me and he was so thankful to have the help. He told me I was a ‘Godsend.’”

After aggressive maintenance, Hutchison said she was able to resuscitate roughly 70% of the plants in the greenhouse. Hutchison said that getting the weeds under control was the biggest challenge, as even outside the greenhouse, they’d grown knee to waist high, thriving under the monsoon rains.

Hutchison also found the school’s prickly pear garden plants dumped all over and had to replant them all. During that time, she discovered a family of javelinas living at the base of the mountain, as well as a host of more hostile desert dwellers like Gila monsters, scorpions and rattlesnakes.

For the javelinas, Hutchison leaves a few of the sprinklers on slightly so they have a few spots where they can drink or play in a mud hole.

“They need water too,” Hutchison said.

Despite the hard work, Hutchison said she enjoyed the responsibility. Hutchison grew up living in the country on a ranch and gardens as a hobby, so she was familiar with some of the challenges of horticulture. But many of the students in the AGS101 class, taught by Professor Deanna Diwan, are nearly as green as the plants they learn about.

During the class Monday morning, Diwan and Hutchison toured the students through the greenhouse, stopping briefly to identify succulents like the “devil’s backbone,” a Madagascar import with broad leaves lined with tiny plantlets that drop when the “mother” plant dies and then grow in the soil.

Diwan then had the students pick out seeds from among a number of plants including peppers, parsley, basil, lavender and zucchini and guided them through potting and planting procedures. Diwan will later guide the students through germination and seed thinning so the plants aren’t competing for resources.

“Most of these students are in other programs, just getting the ‘ag slant’,” Diwan said. “Our horticulture class has planted most of the landscaping along this path over the years.”

One student, 17-year-old Margaret George of Casa Grande, is taking the class with the goal of getting a certificate in agriculture. George said her brother runs a farm, and while she began in the fine arts, she eventually found herself more drawn to plants and animals.

“I’m just interested in learning more about how the plant cycle works,” George said. “I’m excited to keep going. The greenhouse was a bit unexpected, but I like it so far.”

Although only a few classes will take place in the greenhouse itself, the program staff is dedicated to maintaining the facility now. Diwan suggested the ag program may try and raise money for the CAC Foundation by having a plant sale at some point in the future.

“It makes me feel good that it’s coming together,” Hutchison said. “It’s looking so much better than it did when I took over. And it’s exciting to have classes in there again to use the facilities.”

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Aaron Dorman is the Casa Grande reporter at PinalCentral, covering government, schools, business and more. He can be reached at adorman@pinalcentral.com.

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