A quick look at the luscious leafy greens sprouting from a series of pipes doesn’t quite tell the whole story.
“It’s a lot of trial and error,” Bethel Park sixth-grader Sydney Kellander said. “It took us many tries before we got a batch of seedlings that was ready to grow in the lab. A lot of the batches didn’t do so well and didn’t grow.”
The lab in this case is a locker that’s equipped as a hydroponic garden, tended to by Sydney and several of her Neil Armstrong Middle School classmates as they’ve learned how to make plants thrive in something besides soil.
“We found a good recipe, and now all of our work has finally paid off,” she said.
Speaking of recipes, the students hosted an early May luncheon featuring what they’d grown, with salads topped by healthy oil-and-vinegar dressing and chickpeas that were roasted by teacher Dave Espinar, whose room is where the hydroponic garden is located.
He explained one of the main purposes for its establishment.
“In the research we did, we found that students on average don’t consume vegetables or fruits daily, not even one time throughout their day,” he said. “So it’s really to make vegetables more accessible and to try new recipes.”
Joining Sydney in maintaining the garden, including the crucial task of monitoring pH levels, are fellow sixth-graders Magnolia Cavagnaro, Sydney Glover, Elliott Knibloe and Ellis Stearman.
“Our purpose was to learn a new skill to garden. We also want to add it to the school lunch, for some homegrown vegetables. It kind of transformed from that,” Magnolia said. “And we also in the future may sell these at a farmers’ market.”
Regarding the potential for school lunches, the garden received a $500 donation from Metz Culinary Management, which provides food and nutritional services for Bethel Park School District. Joe Consolmagno, a Metz general manager who also represents Ward 1 on Bethel Park Council, attended the students’ luncheon as a project advocate.
Another council member, John Oakes of Ward 3, helped construct the hydroponic system, and Espinar’s position as representing the 7th ward further strengthens municipal support for the project.
Espinar has applied for $3,000 through the Whole Kids Foundation’s Garden Grant program, with beneficiaries scheduled to be announced Aug. 1.
“If we are selected as a grant recipient, we will use those funds to purchase tower gardens, which are vertical hydroponic systems that will allow tomatoes and cucumbers to grow,” he said.
The current horizontally oriented system, in which a pump circulates water through two levels of pipes, employs a wool insulation product in lieu of soil. The growing process starts with seeds planted in small containers, and when they sprout into suitably sized seedlings, they’re transferred.
Along with horticulture, the students are learning about other subjects, including the economics of proper housing for a hydroponic garden.
“These lockers, we can purchase for about $1,500,” Espinar said about the retail variety. “But if we make it on our own, we are at around $400.”
Harry Funk is a Tribune-Review news editor. You can contact Harry at [email protected]