Vertical towers making it possible to teach gardening to students

Kimberly Sanders kindergarten class shows off their tower garden with their greens already growing.

Diane Peltz – Contributing Writer

Thanks to a community member (Beth Lequire) who started a Go Fund Me campaign plus a grant that Macon Schools STEM Coordinator Jennifer Love received through Kids and some funds from their STEM-E grant that is funded through the Cherokee Preservation Foundation, they have been able to purchase three garden grow towers for the schools.

“We purchased only three because I have had two teachers approach me consistently about putting in a school garden.  One teacher at Iotla Elementary and one at South Macon.  The one issue with an outdoor garden is that it is difficult to grow a crop during the school year.  Either students see the crop being planted but they don’t get to harvest because of summer or they see the tail end of the season.  With the grow towers, students will be able to grow greens (lettuce, kale, spinach) throughout the school year in their classroom (the towers come with a light source).  It takes 4-6 weeks to grow from seed to harvest.  The tower also comes on wheels so we are hoping that different classrooms can “adopt” the tower for a month or two and then pass it along to another class.  The hope is to expand the project to additional towers in the future if this seems like a sustainable project.  I also want to make sure the towers that we have purchased are being utilized before we invest in additional towers.  The third tower is going to be shared/check out by any teachers who are interested.  Right now I have Nantahala School and Highlands School on the list to check it out.”

So what is a vertical garden? 

Vertical gardening is growing things upwards rather than outwards.  They consist of a hydroponic systems that allows growing of plants in a vertical fashion. Hydroponics is the process of growing plants in sand, gravel, or liquid, with added nutrients but without soil. Vertical hydroponics works by using conventional hydroponic techniques in a vertical, gravity-fed system. The nutrient-rich water is fed from the top and collected at the bottom.  Seedlings are started in a window kit.   When the seedlings are ready — usually about three weeks after germination — they are  planted in the Tower Garden. Instead of soil, Tower Garden plants grow in a medium called rockwool, which provides plant roots with oxygen and consistent moisture, encouraging rapid, healthy growth.

The reservoir is filled at the base of the Tower Garden with a mineral blend mixture and water. A low-wattage, submersible pump in the reservoir pushes the nutrient solution to the top of the Tower Garden through a small central pipe. The nutrient solution then drips down the inside of the Tower Garden, evenly cascading over the exposed plant roots. A timer ensures this process repeats continuously, to deliver the ideal amount of oxygen, water and nutrients to plants at the perfect time. Aside from a few minor maintenance tasks, such as checking water levels and cleaning the pump filter, a  Tower Garden will take care of itself. And in just a few short weeks, homegrown produce can be  harvested at its peak.

In Kimberly Sanders’s South Macon Elementary class, her kindergarten students have already begun to see the fruits of their labor. Miriam Laird, a student in Sanders’s class explained how it works. She says, “we are growing lettuce, we all helped plant it and when it is ready to harvest we will put it on a hamburger and eat it.”

“It is wonderful for the children to watch the life cycle of the plants as they grow,” said Sanders. Her class has some bib lettuce already growing in the tower along with some herbs.

Missy McConnell’s third graders are ready to transplant the seedlings into the tower that are germinating in the window.

At Iotla Valley Elementary School Missy McConnell”s third grade class is also starting a vertical garden in their classroom.  Their seeds are still in the germination process in the windowsill,  but have recently sprouted. They are waiting until the stems become strong enough to transplant them into the tower. They have a variety of lettuce, herb, spinach and kale growing. Several students had a lot to say about their excitement regarding this project. Brady Baldwin said, “it is a lot of fun helping the teacher and looking at the plants get bigger and bigger. I can’t wait to eat the vegetables.”

Another student, Maylee Postell explained, “I was excited to get it and the teacher told us we could eat the vegetables that we grew. I can’t wait until it grows so I can make salsa.”  Nathan Prevette added, “I want to make salads, it is a fun project.” 

Finally, Rylan Heaton exclaimed, “I’m so excited to grow and eat the plants. We can all share with the class and with Ms. McConnell.”

“I was raised in the mountains, I have been gardening since I could walk. My students will get the fulfillment of harvesting the vegetable and then getting to taste them,” said McConnell.

Many of the students in McConnell’s class have never tasted vegetables such as  spinach or kale but they are all anxious to give it a try.  She also explained that it is possible to grow tomatoes in the tower, maybe in the spring,  which Maylee would need to make the salsa.

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