KOSCIUSKO COUNTY — K21 Health Foundation funded the purchase of tower gardens for both Warsaw Community Schools and Lakeland Christian Academy. The gardens give students the opportunity to learn about the process of growing fresh fruits and vegetables and how eating fresh, healthy produce impacts physical health.
Patti Goldsmith, a teacher at Lakeland Christian Academy, said the seeding process started last week. LCA began its program last year. Goldsmith requested a grant from the K21 Health Foundation for funding to purchase three tower garden growing systems for her science classes.
“We started with including the seventh, eighth and 10th grade science classes,” she said. “This year, the tower gardens will be worked on by the introduction to agricultural studies class, which spans all grade levels.”
Tower gardening begins with the seeding, she noted.
“Because this is an aeroponic growing system, we don’t use any soil,” she said. “Instead, we use planting material, called rock wool. This is basically ground up rock that has been formed into planting cubes.”
The planting cubes are placed in water to soak for 30 minutes, prior to planting the seeds in them. Once they have been soaked and the excess water spun out with a salad spinner, seeds are placed in each cube. The seeds are then germinated in seedling trays. The water in each tray needs to be replaced daily until the root system begins to push through the wall of the rock wool.
“When we see the beginning of the root system, we then transfer the seedling, still in the rock wool, to the tower,” she noted.
The tower itself has a 20-gallon reservoir of water that contains a pump. This pump pushes the water up the center of the tower to the top. Once at the top, the water bubbles over into a catch bin that has holes in it. The water drips through the catch bin holes to the roots of the plants placed in the tower. This water process occurs for 15 minutes every hour. The water is fortified with nutrients that are the same nutrients found in the soil that are necessary for plant growth. The pH balance of the water is constantly monitored to assure the optimal level for growing whatever type of plant being housed in the tower.
Lights are used for growing purposes, as well. Plants, like people, need a certain amount of light per day. The plants have around nine hours of light per day. “During the growing period, we monitor the development of the plants by measuring growth, checking root development, leaf color, etc. We usually harvest after about five weeks,” Goldsmith said.
The first 10 percent of the harvest is donated to someone or a group that is in need, such as Fellowship Missions and Combined Community Services. The rest of the harvest is used to create a salad bar for the student body. “At this point, lettuce is our main crop. We will be adding tomatoes this year,” she said.
Goldsmith said the students have fallen in love with the program.
She added, “My goal for this program is to give students a way to interact with their community that builds relationship. It is so important to be able to look past yourself and see what you can do for others.”
Similarly, WCS also has a tower garden in its schools. Gardens are in each building and even Gateway, said Christine Bonifield, instructional coach with a focus on grant and project management for WCS.
Last spring was the start of the tower gardens at WCS. WCS was able to purchase a complete tower garden and supplies for each of the eight elementary schools, two middle schools, alternative learning center, high school and career center.
“Last year, the majority of students grew lettuce as lettuce has a short growing period. Some of our students tasted lettuce for the first time. The yields were large and the students shared their produce with multiple classrooms. This year, the classes are venturing into different produce and herbs,” Bonifield said.
Master gardeners, such as Steve Koontz, have been beneficial in providing training and support for both school systems.