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Hydroponics in Hermosa: Students' learning grows in living classroom garden

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HERMOSA | An open concrete courtyard on the campus of the Hermosa Elementary and Middle School has been transformed into a hydroponics garden and living classroom, bringing an opportunity for both literal and figurative growth to its students.

Todd Gregson, paraprofessional at Hermosa Elementary and Middle School, envisioned the project for middle school and elementary school students, providing an opportunity for students to learn where their food comes from, and learn the unique process of hydroponic growing.

Gregson, who has experience with his own hydroponics garden, worked with middle schoolers to conceive and build the hydroponics garden, and for elementary students to enjoy and work in it.

The garden has a storybook theme, introduced by a hand-crafted sign reading “Mr. McGregor’s Garden” at the entrance to the garden, welcoming all but rabbits. “No Rabbits—Go Away!,” it warns. Jack and the Beanstalk and a salsa-loving dragon also contribute to the theme, with decorations created by staff and students scattered throughout the garden.

A bee station with large wooden slides offering bee facts and jokes and a fish tank planted towards the entrance to the garden further transform the courtyard into a “living classroom.”

Elementary students were enjoying a sunny morning in the garden Wednesday, monitoring the plants and enjoying the spoils. Gregson has a rotating group of summer classes he brings through every day that get to spend 30-45 minutes in the garden. Depending on age level, they work with different ideas and concepts.

Their favorite part: eating. Eight-year-old Brooke’s favorite is peas. Melanie, also eight, loves the watermelon. Danny, eight, is a fan of the lettuce — showcasing a beautiful spread of alternating green and red.

They were learning about plant root systems Wednesday, Gregson explained, lifting a row of lettuce to reveal thin white roots underneath a narrow lineup of plants.

While eating the produce was the students’ favorite garden activity, a close second was defending the plants from attacking bugs, using ladybugs. The students proudly displayed transparent green vials lined with crawling ladybugs, waiting to be unleashed on the plants.

Giggles echoed through the courtyard as they released the defenders, a few crawling onto their arms and hands instead of the plants.

“Look, you can see them working,” said Danny excitedly, pointing out a ladybug he’d successfully perched on a leaf of lettuce.

The students introduced a variety of plants, including watermelon, strawberries, cucumbers, carrots, tomatoes, cauliflower, broccoli, lettuce, cantaloupe, pumpkins and a student favorite — peas.

Middle school students got to choose what they wanted to grow, and helped Gregson construct everything from the wooden structures they sit on to the hand-painted water bottles that help the water flow. Based on what they chose to grow, they then had to research which hydroponics system worked best for the plants.

They learned about the hydroponics process from Gregson, and researched how to design and build the garden. They had to know things like how much water flows through the pump, if the pump was big enough to pump from that end to this end, and “lots of math and science,” Gregson said.

The hydroponics system itself is a recirculating system, he explained, set on a timer. Underneath the wooden structures that hold the plants is a tank to change the water, with organic nutrients. Every 15 minutes, the system will run for 30 seconds, taking the water pumps up through black tubes for nutrients to be sucked up by the plants. Anything left over goes back into the tank.

The plants themselves sit in pots filled with perlite, a lightweight granular material made of volcanic glass. White in color, perlite is a soil substitute, one of the defining features of hydroponics: growing without soil.

The elementary students get to experiment with the produce, including an attempt at changing the shape of the vegetables. Hoping to produce heart- and star-shaped cucumbers, they placed molds around the growing cucumbers, secured by binder clips. They also plan to take a crack at square pumpkins.

Once a week, or every few days, the middle school students check the pH and nutrient levels with special tools, determining if the levels need to be adjusted or more nutrients added. The knowledge will eventually be passed down to the elementary students, currently enjoying the peas and ladybugs.

The garden has been growing since May, and will hopefully continue into winter, at the mercy of the ever-changing South Dakota climate.

“Lots of kids had no idea how broccoli grew,” Gregson said, of the educational value the garden brings to the students. “They had no concept of how long it takes to grow a watermelon.”

The garden allows them to see the process from beginning to end.

“It’s just knowing how to grow your own food — and healthy food,” he said.

Hermosa Elementary and Middle School Principal Forrest Paris sees the garden as a reflection of the staff’s passion and expertise, and their desire to pass it on to the students.

“They’re experts in these different fields, and that’s their passion, and they know how to get the kids excited for it,” he said. “And just to bring that excitement, and something that’s a little bit different, and the engagement piece is huge.”

–Contact Laura Heckmann at lheckmann@rapidcityjournal.com

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