To most of us, gardening means digging in the dirt, planting seeds and watering them. A program at Morningside Elementary is showing students how to eliminate one of those elements, however – the dirt.
Third-graders at Morningside have been participating this spring in a four-week program on aeroponics, the art of growing plants in air or mist and without soil. The program utilizes the Tower Garden vertical aeroponics system and also includes instruction on botany and nutrition, as the students see the process of gardening from seed to food.
“We wanted the students to be exposed to different ways of cultivation,” said Morningside science and math teacher Mala Nadarajan. “Now that we know that we don’t get good soil in all places, we wanted the students to be aware of the fact they can still grow vegetables in their own house using this type of cultivation.”
Using technology and techniques developed by NASA, Tim Blank developed the Tower Garden after serving as chief horticulturalist at Walt Disney World’s The Land Hydroponics Greenhouses at Epcot. Seeds grow inside cubes made of an insulating material called rockwool. Once they get about 3 inches tall, they are transferred to the tower garden to continue growing, utilizing a water circulation system and, if used indoors, grow lights.
Students at Morningside, the first school in the state to utilize the program, grew several varieties of herbs and vegetables from seedlings in 3½ weeks.
“Research shows that it grows much faster and, of course, healthier,” said Venisha Bonham McGee of Healthy Living Gardens, who brought the program to Morningside. “The food is much more nutrient-dense.”
As part of the program’s nutrition segment, the students develop recipes to include the herbs and vegetables they’ve grown, such as a tzatziki dip. On Wednesday, they expanded their focus to mix in other fruits and vegetables and create their own smoothies. Two inventions: a mixture of cantaloupe, apples and celery they called Fruit-a-mix, and a combination of pineapple, apples, grapes and broccoli they named Paradise.
Nadajaran said Morningside fourth- and fifth-graders have also taken interest in the program, stopping by the classroom when they can to check the progress of the plants. Morningside Principal Michelle Dumas said she’s hopeful the program, which is funded through a state grant, can be expanded to include more grades in the future.
“This fits right into STEM and it also fits into the Mobile County Public School system’s push for project-based learning,” Dumas said. “The children have been able to work in teams, they’ve been able to plan, they’ve been able to forecast and give their hypotheses about the way they thought things would happen and they’ve been able to see the plants grow just within a couple of short weeks.
“They’ve had an awesome experience from this,” she added. “It is really helping our kids to be excited about learning. It gives them something to be excited about when they come to school, and they can’t wait to go in and see the plants and see how they’re growing.”