Not only does the beaming tower garden at St. Peter Elementary School in Hokah ornately light the entryway of the school, it’s also sparking students interest in growing and eating vegetables.
Overseeing the aeroponic garden is physical education teacher Sherry Sipusich, who has all of her classes help with the tower garden. Sipusich said when the students get to help with planting and harvesting the vegetables, they are more likely to eat them.
“I not only want them to eat it, but be familiar with it, and know what it looks and tastes like,” said Sipusich. “Because health is so important. If you don’t have your health, you don’t have anything. So I’m trying to start them young.”
The tower garden can grow anything except for root plants, and is currently housing kale, sweet basil, iceberg lettuce, gourmet lettuce, marigolds, pansies, parsley and more. Sipusich said they took a gamble on the pumpkins because pumpkins are flowering plants, and therefore need to be pollinated. According to Sipusich, they plan on harvesting potatoes, blueberries, strawberries, herbs, and more in the future.
All of the planting was done at the beginning of the school year, and students recently harvested the first pieces of the plants to be eaten during school lunch. On a recent morning, four students, all from different grades, eagerly helped Sipusich with the harvesting by cutting a couple inches from the base of each plant to maintain the root system, before they took the portions down to the lunchroom staff.
“I’m trying all these foods today,” said third-grader Rylee Wilson, who said he checks the growth of the plants every day after riding his bike to school.
While harvesting, Sipusich shared tidbits about kale having more iron than beef, as well as there being more nutrients in some of the vein of lettuce than the entire leaf.
“Can we get a little more lettuce?” asked fifth-grader Spencer Schafter, after the group had filled a fresh-cut bowl of greens.
“That right there, is rewarding enough,” said Sipusich, after helping the kids harvest the plants. “Especially when they ask for seconds.”
Rockwool is used for planting instead of soil in tower gardens, and lights attached around the sides stay on for 14 hours at a time to simulate the sun. Tonic water, which Sipusich and her students refer to as “magic juice” is kept at a certain pH level and stored in a 20-gallon reservoir at the bottom of the tower, and shoots up every 45 minutes for 15 minutes straight, raining down on the exposed roots.
Sipusich, who said she wasn’t really interested in gardening before getting the tower, is pleased the students are even more excited about the plants than she anticipated.
“It tastes better, grows faster and it’s so convenient; we just love it,” said Sipusich. “And the kids love it, and that’s the whole purpose, honestly, just to get them to talk about it.”
Tower gardens have been popping up all over as of late, with University of Wisconsin-La Crosse installing several in their cafeterias, while the La Crescent Montessori Academy also recently just started its first tower garden.