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Chester County Press

Growing green at Patton Middle School

01/29/2018 08:36AM ● By J. Chambless

Duane McCarthy, a representative of the Tower Garden company, speaks to students at Patton Middle School last week.

By John Chambless
Staff Writer

Right now, in the depth of winter, vegetables are green and growing at Patton Middle School, thanks to some brand-new Tower Garden units that were set up last week.

On Friday morning, eighth-grade students at the school learned about the science of aeroponics and built three of the seven-foot growing towers in a classroom shared by teachers Betsy Ballard and Kimberly Hisler. Duane McCarthy, a representative of of the Tower Garden company, was on hand to explain how the units work and give tips about their assembly and maintenance.

The towers are a continuation of Patton's FCS Garden Initiative, which was begun by Hisler and Ballard. Students and families are now responsible for maintaining 30 raised beds outside the school. The produce grown there goes to the school lunch program, as well as the Kennett Food Cupboard, Safe Harbor in West Chester, and local domestic violence shelters. Students get hands-on lessons in where food comes from, they learn to eat better, and in some cases are inspired to go into agricultural sciences.

Two of the Tower Garden units will be put in the school cafeterias to grow lettuce and other vegetables for salads and toppings. The other unit will be in the FCS classroom. A “Pizza Garden” is the first goal for the harvest, Ballard said. Each tower can grow 28 heads of lettuce, or basil, oregano or pretty much any other plant.

The system has a 20-gallon base where water is stored. A small pump circulates the water to the top of the unit, where it filters down through layers of plants that are bedded in rock wool. Nurtients are added to the water, and the system only requires occasional replenishment of the evaporated water. Lights are suspended from the top of the unit to simulate sunlight, so plants can be grown and harvested year-round.

The idea for growing food in a sustainable way indoors grew out of NASA's brainstorming for feeding astronauts who might be based on the moon or in space for long periods of time. The aeroponic technology of the Tower Garden has been around for about eight years, McCarthy said. But only in the last five years or so have the units been made available to homeowners and not just large farms.

Hisler and Ballard said that a year of fundraising has included large donations from the Patton PTO and the Educational Foundation. The large tower units cost about $1,200 each, Ballard said, but the company makes smaller units that would be suitable for an apartment or other small space.

McCarthy said he has set up units in nursing homes, where residents can enjoy growing flowers without bending over to work in the dirt. He has set the units up in inner-city schools where fresh food is at a premium, and he told the Patton students that fueling their bodies with the right kind of food is critical. “That's my PSA for the day,” he said, smiling. “I ask that you respect and take care of what you're growing, and I want all of you to be engaged in the process,” he said. “I was at schools in the Bronx and in North Philadelphia recently, and they were pretty rough areas. We have a tendency to not think about food because we get plenty of it, but in some of the places I've been, people cannot wait to take the food home and serve it to their families.”

The self-contained nature of the units, and the ability to know exactly where the food comes from, is groundbreaking, McCarthy said. And for third-world countries, the units could sustain entire families since they use little water, produce food year-round and do not require owning land. McCarthy said the company just shipped 140 Tower Gardens to Dubai, and he agreed that they would be ideal in arid or impoverished areas around the world.

McCarthy arrived with boxes full of seedling vegetables that were ready to place into the towers. The students should be able to begin harvesing lettuce and more in about five weeks. Seeds from mature plants can also be replanted in the towers to produce more food.

When McCarthy had a room full of eighth graders, he broke them into three groups and challenged them to assemble the units. The girls' team won, he declared after 15 minutes, because they read the directions and worked together well. The other teams of boys were not far behind, however.

Giving students ownership of the units, and of the foods they grow, is at the heart of what Ballard and Hisler teach. “This teaches kids responsibility,” Hisler said. “The more they grow food, the more they like to eat it. They figure, 'I grew this, I'm going to try it.'”

To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, email [email protected].