Students across the Brainerd School District are learning about hydroponics and gardening by planting vegetables in their indoor tower gardens this winter.

Sourcewell donated the towers to each elementary school in the district as a part of its Tech Mobile program, which aims to create hands-on learning opportunities for students in the region.

Third graders at Harrison Elementary planted lettuce, spinach, parsley, dill, arugula and other leafy greens in their cafeteria gardens Thursday, Dec. 5.

Rachel Johnson, an educational consultant with Sourcewell, showed the students how the towers work and taught them how to care for their veggies after planting them.

“These are aeroponic gardens, so there’s a pump in the reservoir that pumps the water up,” Johnson explained, pointing to the small pods that would eventually hold the seeds and produce the plants.

While soil provides nutrients to plants in a typical garden, the third graders learned their tower garden plants would grow with the help of rock wool cubes, which are soilless compounds containing all the nutrients their vegetables will need to grow.

“I learned that you don’t need soil to grow a plant. You could use nutrients by itself without soil,” Arianna Elling-Starry said after taking a turn planting some seeds.

Henlee Yaunick said she learned how to take care of plants.

“It needs sun, water and nutrients,” she said. “And the way how you take care of it is you weed the garden, you water the garden and you give light to the garden.”

Harrison third-grader Jazmine Garrison plants her seeds in a tower garden in the cafeteria Thursday, Dec. 5. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch
Harrison third-grader Jazmine Garrison plants her seeds in a tower garden in the cafeteria Thursday, Dec. 5. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

In aeroponic tower gardens, plants get water through a reservoir with a pump that directs the water to the top of the tower. The water will then rain down evenly over the pods of plants.

LED lights attached to the gardens will provide the light the plants need in place of the sun.

Johnson explained the various duties students will perform each day, week and month to make sure the plants are growing.

Students learned how to measure the pH levels in the water and increase or decrease them accordingly. Johnson also told them they will have to rotate the tower lid to make sure all plants get equal amounts of water and light, clean the pump filter regularly, prune the plants if they get too big, cut the plants roots when they get too long so they don’t clog the pump and make sure the water remains at room temperature.

“You’re going to look at your plants and make sure they’re healthy,” Johnson explained. “You’re going to look for holes, see if any of your plants have holes in them, see if any of them are growing mildew on them. And if they are, if they have mildew-looking stuff on them, if they have holes, something’s not quite right, and so together as a class you’ll have to problem solve. ‘What do we need to do to our tower to help us have healthy plants?’”

Third-grade teacher Mike Svir said hydroponics is part of the grade level’s standards, meaning the tower gardens fit into the curriculum well.

“Also, it’s awesome for them to be able to see them growing without soil,” he said, noting the students also learn a sense of responsibility through caring for their gardens.

Mikah Isle-Antell (left) Camren Oppelt plant seeds Thursday, Dec. 5, in the tower garden at Harrison Elementary School. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch
Mikah Isle-Antell (left) Camren Oppelt plant seeds Thursday, Dec. 5, in the tower garden at Harrison Elementary School. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

“It’s fun to see that excitement and how engaged they are with this,” he added as he watched students plant their seeds in the rock wool cubes. “And it will be wonderful, too, to see them when they actually eat what it grows.”

Every three or four weeks, students will harvest their gardens and enjoy their veggies through classroom salad parties or by putting them on the salad bar at lunch.

“I think it’s really fun to make plants,” Henlee said, explaining how she soaked her rock wool in water before putting it in the pod.

“And then we get to grow it,” she added.

THERESA BOURKE may be reached at theresa.bourke@brainerddispatch.com or 218-855-5860. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchTheresa.