If you didn't know - vertical gardening is all the rage in schools right now. And it's likely to stay that way. But as an educator pondering the idea, you may be wondering what exactly the experience might be like for young students and what type of success is actually possible.
Today I'm introducing you to another inspiring soil-less science educator in our community - Becky Theis.
Over the past several months, Mrs. Theis has led an elementary science club through the exciting adventure of first-time vertical gardening. She documented the project closely with lots of great photos and even a cool video (which you can view in our next Educator's Newsletter). At the end of the year, she submitted a report to the state on the project, and she has shared this report with us today.
Take a look below to learn about this school's innovate science club and see a real-life case study of the successes and challenges of an elementary school adopting vertical gardening with ZipGrow.
-Halle and the Bright Agrotech Education Team
Lakeview Elementary School's Science Club
I have been a teacher for 21 years, working primarily as the Reading Recovery teacher at Lakeview Elementary. But after taking a NASA class through the Idaho Space Grant Consortium, my interest was piqued and I grew a passion for teaching STEM subjects. Teaching and learning STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) brings great rewards and fun. I couldn’t resist starting the Science Club at Lakeview Elementary in 2010, and was joined this year by Nancy Hauber, a Title 1 Para who shares my passion for science, fueled by her experience as an EMT and experiences like the Teton Science Camp. Together we teach topics from earth, biological, and physical sciences to over 120 members.
Because of our large enrollment, we run our club like a mini college. In the fall and spring, we offer 5 different sessions, 1 per month. Members may sign up for the session of their choice. Keeping our sessions smaller has allowed us to plan and prepare materials for a manageable sized group, and it allows the students to customize their learning and pursue the subjects that they are interested in. This helps to inspire the students and create life-long learners of them!
Case Study: How one science club experimented with vertical gardening
In January 2015, we received a vertical planter. [Complete Indoor Vertical Growing] Mr. Jordan, from High Plains Growers, came to school, helped us assemble the planter and talked me through the process. The planter is a vertical tower with one row of crops. The tower rests in a basin where the water is recirculated as it is pumped to the top of the tower to water the plants then drains back into the basin.
At our first Science Club meeting, we looked at the parts, discussed the purpose for each part, and voted on planting lettuce, spinach, and cilantro as our maiden crops. We chose to put the planter just outside the library, since every student would pass by the planter on their way to lunch each day, giving all students a chance to see, touch, and examine the planter. Even as we tried to get it set up, we had so many interruptions from students going by, asking about the planter. They wanted to see what was inside the tub and they wanted to know what everything was for…needless to say, we didn’t get much done!
But all of the interaction of the students with the planter did give us two great ideas! First, we decided to take pictures of everything so we could label and explain the entire process to anyone who wanted to read our signs. That gave the Science Club members the chance to solidify their knowledge and to introduce the planter to passersby.
Seeing those pictures gave us our second idea…making a video! We had the kids highlight each part of the planter and explain what each item did. Then we took a new photo each week creating a timelapse video of our crops!
From then on, each week, we would take a photo of the planter to add to the video, do maintenance work on the planter, and make plans for what to do with our lettuce.
We did not follow any curriculum, instead, we followed the lead of the children trying to fill in science terms and healthy tips and topics at the teachable moments.
When the lettuce was mature, we met after school to harvest, clean out the planter, and make a giant salad. There was so much to do, so we broke into 2 teams: the harvesting/cleaning team, and the salad preparing team.
The salad team made a giant salad bar so the kids could pick and choose what they wanted on their salads. We had a huge variety of healthy fixings for them to choose from. Our youngest member, Eve, ate the most! She just couldn’t stop!
At our next meeting, the kids voted to plant green beans and strawberries. They are growing now, and there are flowers on the beans! It will be fun to see how this crop turns out!
Overall, the experience has been interesting and fun. We have had many success and faced several challenges. Here is a summary of the successes and challenges that we had to work through:
- Lessons in delayed gratification: many times they wanted to cut the lettuce and start over, but when we were patient, we were rewarded with big, beautiful lettuce leaves!
- 450 + kids were introduced to hydroponic gardening
- We grew beautiful, tasty lettuce!
- Our project excited young gardeners who are trying to convince their parents to garden at home! (It’s a domino effect!)
- The vertical garden sparked discussions about growing plants without pesticides, chemicals, or preservatives.
- Students learned to make a salad exciting and delicious by adding healthy fixings!
- The students and Science Club members got to watch the entire life cycle of a lettuce plant from seed to salad bowl and now understand more about where their food comes from.
"Our cilantro and spinach did not grow well."
Tip from the team: “Spinach is a very weird, polyploid crop that has low germination rates to start (usually 60-70%). On top of that it really doesn’t like wet feet. We’ve grown it before, but it’s tough, and requires a lot of sophistication to make work- a level of sophistication that is tough, if not impossible with a spring. It’s just a really hard crop to grow!” - Dr. Nate
When it comes to spinach, you’re better off just trying something else.
"Our strawberries didn't do anything at all."
Some plants require pollination, including strawberries. This is likely the reason the Science Club’s strawberries didn’t grow. Try pollinating plants by using a small paintbrush or by gently shaking the plant to disperse the pollen. Hydroponically grown strawberries usually grow robustly and produce sweet fruit.
Learn how to pollinate plants in this blog post.
"We planted our bean seeds directly in the matrix medium and they grew into the matrix medium, not towards the light. Next time, we decided to plant them in the jiffy pots first."
Although planting seeds directly into the towers is an option, it's not always the best option. The science club had a hard time getting their been seeds growing this way. Learn how to properly start seeds and plant seedlings in your ZipGrow towers before getting started.
"The spacing of our plants was not good…we learned to plan ahead and how far down the tower we should plant."
Plant spacing is also very important when you plant your vertical garden. Check out this video on proper plant spacing in ZipGrow towers.
"What to do while waiting for the plants to grow: we became very creative in filling our time with photos, making lists of healthy salad fixings, and we are planning to make a song parody."
There are lots of fun things you can do with your hydroponic produce. While you're waiting for it to grow, plan out some fun activities for later. Here are 8 Fun Ways to Use Hydroponics Produce in Your School.
We have been blessed with great community interest! Many parents have stopped by to see the planter and have returned to check its progress.
In honor of Earth Day, our planter was featured in our School District newsletter, which reaches over 1,000 school employees.
Overall, I would say the planter was a huge hit with the kids and a successful adventure for us all. We're so glad for giving this opportunity to try gardening in a whole new way!