Bringing the garden to the classroom has become more and more popular, and schools in Eastern Plumas are celebrating growth year-round through the implementation of indoor garden systems called Tower Gardens.
The gardens are white aeroponic towers, aeroponic being a type of hydroponic growing method, with openings for seedlings staggered vertically up the sides of each white tower — no growing medium needed. Elongated grow lights hang on the outside of the tower, providing steady light appropriate for photosynthesis.
Each garden can grow more than 150 different varieties of plants, with the only real exceptions being root crops such as potatoes and carrots, and items like grapevines, bushes and trees.
The towers nearly triple the speed of plant growth, compared to traditional gardening, and use 10 percent of the water and space of soil gardening, with plants given nutrition with an organic solution.
Young learners at C. Roy Carmichael Elementary school are being exposed to the basic concepts of plant life, the growth cycle, biology and botany, as Garden Manager Sarah Boyd shares a classroom that resembles a greenhouse with grades K-6.
“We have two tower gardens growing currently,” Boyd said as she gestured toward the far end of the room, which displayed a bounty of lettuce, hot peppers, tomatoes, basil, squash and lots of sweet peas.
“We’re hoping for two more towers in the future so that we can utilize more of it in student lunches,” Boyd explained. “These gardens are learning gardens, and they are fun.”
Boyd said that amongst her students, it is considered a privilege to get in on the excitement of planting seeds, checking water levels and testing the pH of the water.
Students do get to enjoy the harvest, however. “Last year, I picked one specific class, and they all chose specific types of lettuce to grow in the tower gardens. We got to the end of the year and made a special group salad. I brought homemade ranch dressing and you know what? Even the picky kids ate it,” Boyd exclaimed.
Exposing students to fresh vegetables at a young age is helpful, according to Boyd. “The kids definitely try new things with me, and honestly, I feel that everyone should know how to grow food. I teach the entire plant life cycle and all the students learn about it from kindergarten up. I learned to garden from my dad, and I really got interested in my 20s. I fell in love, and now I get to share that with the kids who love it.”
Curriculum at CRC covers nutrition and food groups, as well as integrating health, composting, vermiculture, aeroponics and more, put to practice through both tower gardens and the six traditional garden beds on campus.
“My favorite thing is that I get to work with both plants and kids,” Boyd said. “I love teaching kids to garden, I love plants, and it’s amazing to get to teach what you love.”
In the cafeteria at PJSHS, also known as the Tiger’s Lair, the window-lined corner of the room is dominated by two tower gardens — one vibrant with a vividly green assortment of lettuce varietals, and one prepared to be planted after spring break.
“Everyone is curious about the gardens, and staff and students both like to check in on them when they are in the cafeteria,” said Robin Adrian-Murray, edible school garden coordinator, culinary arts instructor and cafeteria manager at PJSHS.
Portola Junior/Senior High School alumnus Erin Sheridan, now attending CalPoly with a major in Environmental and Agricultural Science, initially brought the concept of gardening inside PJSHS as a senior project in 2016.
“Erin brought the garden in with the help of Patti Buchholtz and Heather Grant,” said Adrian-Murray.
“Erin started the seeds, and maintained the garden, even moving on to share some instruction with our then newly-formed gardening class.”
Most students are not complete strangers to gardening concepts, but bringing the garden into the classroom has made gardening more accessible to many, especially in a climate that does not have an especially long growing season.
“That’s one thing I really like about the tower gardens,” said Daryl Hutchins, Lead Teacher at Jim Beckwourth High School, which has students aged 16 and up. “I garden at home, and I’m considering the idea of expanding my garden to include a tower to extend the growing season indoors through the winter season.”
Jim Beckwourth currently has one tower garden in the classroom, donated by Amy Filippini of Loyalton Elementary School, with seedlings newly planted and students taking turns to test the pH levels of the water in the tower.
“The students can get hands on with this, and thus far, just preparing the tower and getting it started has generated an interest in the growing process,” Hutchins explained.
“You can fit up to 28 plants in a three-foot footprint, and what we did was chart out a graph with numbered seedlings corresponding to numbers on the graph and the tower slots,” Hutchins said. The class decided to begin growing their first experimental garden.
“We initially started 28 seeds, but 13 made it to the tower. When the seeds were picked, we chose salad-based plants, such as three kinds of lettuce, basil, cucumber and tomato.”
Right now, the garden is new, but Hutchins says that every day he sees rapid growth on the tower. By the end of the school year, Hutchins’ class has three goals: First, to harvest the tower and create salads, with homemade dressings. Second, to harvest the three types of tomatoes that are growing, mild chili pepper, habanera pepper and bell pepper for a classroom salsa treat.
Third, the class plans on doing a sweet treat, so they have planted three different types of strawberries, two kinds of cantaloupe and one watermelon, in hopes of a fruit salad.
“We’ve also got peas and spaghetti squash growing,” Hutchins smiled. “When school lets out for the summer, I plan on getting together some students to come in once a week and harvest, as well as checking the water and pH levels.”
The established tower in the Tiger’s Lair at PJSHS is at peak growth as Eastern Plumas enters the wet spring season, and Adrian-Murray has similar salad plans in motion. “We use produce that we’ve grown here at the school in both the cafeteria and in culinary classes,” she explained. “Today, we harvested the tower for fresh arugula, green and romaine leaf lettuce to put into frozen fruit smoothies and were sweetened with stevia.”
Adrian-Murray went on to note that there is a heavy emphasis on including a lot of fresh vegetables in PJSHS lunch offerings. “We have the kids for a very short period of time, and we can help shape healthy life choices,” she said with a smile. “The gardens allow the kids to see their food grow from start all the way to thriving and abundant.”
The once-a-week gardening class that began in 2016 has grown as well, turning into a popular elective class held five times a week for seventh- and eighth-graders at PJSHS. Adrian-Murray also has plans to keep the gardens growing with a summer harvest student group, hoping that it will keep interested young ones engaged.
Adrian-Murray has three major items that she insists upon with her students: consumption of vegetables, water and eye contact. With the towers, vegetables are certainly being consumed. “We look forward to getting our outdoor Golden Lair garden built with grant monies sought out by Paul Mrowczynski, coming from the California-Grown Fresh School Meals Grant.”
The grant will also be helping bring gardening tools, supplies and more to each school in the district. PJSHS has plans in the works for a 26-foot by 36-foot gothic-style high tunnel garden, which sheds snow and is geared towards our local climate and weather.
“Having a garden accessible to students brings that real-life aspect to nourishing and fueling our bodies,” Adrian-Murray said. As the weather improves, gardening will begin to occur outdoors as well as in, but the tower gardens have definitely taken root in local classrooms, giving students a green thumb that teachers hope will stick with them for life.