HERMOSA | An open concrete courtyard on the Hermosa Elementary and Middle School campus has been transformed into a hydroponics garden and living classroom, offering its students the opportunity to grow both literally and figuratively.
Todd Gregson, a paraprofessional at Hermosa Elementary and Middle School, envisioned the project for middle and elementary school students, which provides students with an opportunity to learn about where their food comes from and learn about the unique process of hydroponic growing.
Gregson, who has experience with his own hydroponic garden, worked with middle school students to design and build the hydroponic garden for elementary school students to enjoy and work in.
The garden has a storybook theme, enhanced by a handcrafted sign that reads “Mr. McGregor’s Garden” at the entrance to the garden, which welcomes everyone except rabbits. “No rabbits – go away!” it warns. Jack and the Beanstalk and a salsa-loving dragon also add to the theme, with decorations created by staff and students scattered throughout the garden.
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A bee station with large wooden slides that offer bee facts and jokes and an aquarium planted towards the entrance of the garden further transform the courtyard into a “living classroom”.
Elementary school students enjoyed a sunny morning in the garden on Wednesday, monitoring the plants and feasting on the loot. Gregson has a rotating group of summer classes he runs every day that can spend 30-45 minutes in the garden. Depending on their age, they work with different ideas and concepts.
Her favorite part: food. Eight-year-old Brooke’s favorite food is peas. Melanie, also eight, loves the watermelon. Danny, eight, is a fan of the salad – he shows off a lovely array of alternating greens and reds.
They learned about plant root systems on Wednesday, Gregson explained, lifting a row of lettuce to reveal thin white roots beneath a narrow row of plants.
While eating the produce was the students’ favorite activity in the garden, a bare second was defending the plants from attacking bugs with ladybugs. Students proudly displayed transparent green vials lined with crawling ladybugs waiting to be released onto the plants.
Giggles echoed around the yard as they released the defenders, some crawling onto their arms and hands instead of onto the plants.
“Look, you can see how they work,” Danny said excitedly, pointing to a ladybug he had successfully placed on a lettuce leaf.
Students introduced a variety of plants including watermelon, strawberries, cucumbers, carrots, tomatoes, cauliflower, broccoli, lettuce, cantaloupes, squashes and a student favorite – peas.
Middle school students could choose what to grow and helped Gregson construct everything from the wooden structures they sit on to the hand-painted water bottles that keep the water flowing. Based on what they wanted to grow, they then had to research which hydroponic system worked best for the plants.
They learned about the hydroponic process from Gregson and did research on how to design and build the garden. They needed to know how much water was going through the pump, whether the pump was big enough to pump from this end to this end, and “a lot of math and science,” Gregson said.
The hydroponic system itself is a circulatory system, he explained, that is set on a timer. Below the wooden structures that hold the plants is a tank to change the water with organic nutrients. Every 15 minutes, the system runs for 30 seconds, pumping water up through black pipes for the plants to suck up nutrients. What’s left goes back into the tank.
The plants themselves sit in pots filled with perlite, a lightweight granular material made from volcanic glass. Perlite is white in color and is a soil substitute, one of the defining characteristics of hydroponics: growing without soil.
Elementary school students can experiment with the products, including trying to change the shape of the vegetables. Hoping to produce heart- and star-shaped cucumbers, they placed molds around the growing cucumbers, secured with binding clips. They also plan to try their hand at square pumpkins.
Once a week or every few days, middle school students check pH and nutrient levels with special instruments to determine if levels need to be adjusted or more nutrients added. The knowledge is eventually passed on to the elementary school students, who are currently enjoying the peas and ladybugs.
The garden has been growing since May and will hopefully continue into winter depending on South Dakota’s ever-changing climate.
“A lot of kids had no idea how broccoli grew,” Gregson said of the educational value the garden brings to students. “They had no idea how long it takes to grow a watermelon.”
The garden allows them to see the process from start to finish.
“It’s all about knowing how to grow your own food — and healthy food,” he said.
The Principal of Hermosa Elementary and Middle School, Forrest Paris, sees the garden as a reflection of the passion and expertise of the staff and their desire to pass this on to the students.
“They’re experts in these different fields and that’s their passion and they know how to get the kids excited about it,” he said. “And just to bring that excitement and something that’s a little bit different, and the engagement piece is huge.”
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