A quick glance at the luscious leafy greens sprouting from a series of pipes doesn’t tell the whole story.
“It’s a lot of trial and error,” said Sydney Kellander, Bethel Park sixth-grader. “It took us many tries before we got a batch of seedlings that were ready to grow in the lab. Many of the batches didn’t do very well and didn’t grow.”
The lab, in this case, is a locker equipped like a hydroponic garden, maintained by Sydney and some of her Neil Armstrong Middle School classmates, as they learned how to make plants thrive in something other than soil.
“We found a good recipe and now all our work has finally paid off,” she said.
Speaking of recipes, the students hosted a luncheon in early May of what they had grown, with salads topped with a healthy oil and vinegar dressing and chickpeas roasted by teacher Dave Espinar, whose room is the hydroponic garden.
He explained one of the main goals for its creation.
“In the research we did, we found that on average, students do not consume fruits or vegetables on a daily basis, even once a day,” he said. “So it’s really about making vegetables more accessible and trying out new recipes.”
In addition to Sydney on garden maintenance, including the critical job of monitoring pH levels, fellow sixth-graders include Magnolia Cavagnaro, Sydney Glover, Elliott Knibloe and Ellis Stearman.
“Our goal was to learn a new skill for gardening. We also want to add it to the school lunch, for some homegrown vegetables. It’s kind of transformed from that,” Magnolia said. “And maybe in the future we’ll sell these at a farmers’ market as well.”
As for the school lunch options, the garden received a $500 donation from Metz Culinary Management, which provides food and nutrition services for the Bethel Park School District. Joe Consolmagno, a Metz general manager who also represents Division 1 on the Bethel Park Council, attended the students’ luncheon as an advocate for the project.
Another councilor, John Oakes of Ward 3, helped build the hydroponic system and Espinar’s position as a representative of the 7th Ward strengthens municipal support for the project.
Espinar has applied for $3,000 through the Whole Kids Foundation’s Garden Grant program, with beneficiaries to be announced August 1.
“If we are selected as a grant recipient, we will use those funds to purchase tower gardens, which are vertical hydroponic systems that can grow tomatoes and cucumbers,” he said.
The current horizontally oriented system, where a pump circulates water through two levels of pipes, uses an insulation product of wool instead of soil. The growing process begins with seeds planted in small containers and when they germinate in appropriately sized seedlings, they are transferred.
Along with horticulture, students learn about other topics, including the economics of proper housing for a hydroponic garden.
“We can buy these lockers for about $1,500,” Espinar said of the store variant. “But if we make it on our own, we’ll be at about $400.”
Harry Funk is a news editor of Tribune-Review. You can contact Harry at [email protected]