From seeds to salads
Chain students grow, harvest vertical garden
By Angie Landsverk
Second graders at Chain O’ Lakes Elementary are growing and harvesting vegetables this year which ultimately end up in their school lunches.
They are doing so in a vertical aeroponics garden.
The tower garden is in the school’s science lab.
“The kids are so excited. They’ll taste it. They’ll eat it,” Mary Kaye Ristow said of the variety of greens being grown at the school.
Ristow, a second-grade teacher, said the tower garden arrived at the school last November.
In January, students began growing lettuce, bok choy, spinach, basil, Swiss chard and rainbow chard.
They started the items from seed, as the tower garden’s supplies included a variety of seeds.
“We chose leafy greens to supplement in the tossed salads at lunch,” she said.
The school district purchased the tower garden through its Wellness Committee budget, at a cost of $1,000.
Carl Hayek, the district’s business manager, said the idea came from Christina Hope, a former member of that committee.
The initiatives of the Wellness Program Team included purchasing a tower garden for an elementary class and then having the students grow, harvest and eat the vegetables, he said.
He has since written a grant which would allow for the purchase of three more tower gardens to be placed throughout the district.
“We hear a lot of news stories about students not eating their vegetables,” Hayek said.
He said the committee’s desire to move forward in this way was based on this Native American proverb: “Tell me and I’ll forget. Show me, and I may not remember. Involve me, and I’ll understand.”
Involving students in healthy eating when they are young may change habitual cultural eating patterns and may perhaps be a lifelong learning experience, Hayek said.
Children are receptive to new ideas, he said.
The district hopes adults learn from children, Hayek said.
Rhonda Hare, principal of the Chain School, describes the school as being “environmentally conscious.”
Each spring, the school holds Environmental Day, a day which involves students, teachers and community members in science lessons outside of the classroom.
“We teach sustainability right alongside responsibility. Second graders have always done the recycling and adopted trees at Chain. Research to find evidence of symbiosis is carried out each fall in Chain forests and fields,” Hare said. “In spring, the sunflowers are planted in the courtyard that will grow the seeds for the next year.”
Two years ago, the school purchased grow lights to start seedlings indoors during the winter months, she said.
She said the seedlings, usually flowers, are transplanted and sent home as gifts or planted in the courtyard.
The tower garden is the school’s latest addition.
“Growing with aeroponics has taught the students so much about the life cycle of plants, and has provided a regular and healthy addition to the school salad bar, and fresh oxygen to our building,” Hare said.
Ristow said the first question her students faced when they planted seeds for the tower garden was whether the seeds needed soil to germinate.
The students learned the seeds did not need soil.
Ristow’s second-grade students found that the rockwool cubes they planted the seeds in helped the seeds germinate better than soil.
The seeds spend between two and three weeks under the grow lights before they are moved into the tower garden, she said.
The tower garden “pumps water up through the whole thing and then sprinkles down the sides to hit the roots,” Ristow said.
That takes place for 15 minutes every hour.
“Once per month, we empty the water and put in new water. It holds about 20 gallons of water,” she said.
A tonic is also added to the water to provide the nutrients the vegetables need.
The students harvest the vegetables once a week.
Ristow said the scientific process is being used with the students.
“We ask them a question, and they use data to determine the answer to the question,” she said.
In addition, they have a controlled group of vegetables growing in the science lab.
Language arts was incorporated as well when students had to write persuasive essays about why they believed they should grow vegetables in a tower garden.
Ristow also looked through the science curriculum and correlated it to the Next Generation Science Standards for kindergarten through second grade, allowing the school’s teachers to see how the tower garden helps meet those standards.
Julie Dawalt also teaches second grade at the school, and her students recently started growing beans and cucumbers.
Hare said the school is fortunate to have a tower garden.
“Trying different varieties of seeds, we are able to grow items that students may never have tasted before. This first round we just harvested bunches of bok choy, just in time for Chinese New Year,” she said.