Skip to main content

Chester County Press

Green thumbs, spaces, and food abound at Penn London Elementary School

03/27/2024 11:57AM ● By Colleen Cochran
Green thumbs, spaces, and food abound at Penn London Elementary School [3 Images] Click Any Image To Expand

Penn London Elementary first graders are making sure their school is filled with fresh air, beautiful scenery, and an abundance of bright, healthy foods. With the help of their teachers, they are growing plants via hydroponic tower gardens placed throughout the school. 

Hydroponics is a form of horticulture that involves growing plants using only water and water-based nutrient solutions. Because the plants get their nutrients within liquid, soil becomes unnecessary. Plants can thrive on a tower garden’s vertical column since the nutrient fluid circulates throughout the structure. 

Penn London first graders use the word “hydroponics” with ease, and they sound like seasoned scientists when they explain how their growing systems operate. In fact, on March 21, the young students were called upon to give a presentation about their hydroponic growing systems at the Avon Grove School Board meeting.

Superintendent of Schools, M. Christopher Marchese, Ed.D., introduced the guests. Penn London Principal Kelly Harrison then gave an overview of how the hydroponics project came into being. She said the school had a goal to bring more nature indoors, and she first learned about the possibility of using hydroponic tower gardens to achieve that goal when she attended an administrative retreat in 2022 at Fluxspace, an educational consultant in Norristown, Pa. Funding for the project was then acquired through a Pennsylvania State Farm Grant and through the Avon Grove Education Foundation.

The Penn London students and their teachers described how they use pumps to circulate the nutrient solution and energy-efficient LED lights in place of sunlight. They also said that when the weather gets warmer, they will wheel their tower gardens outside so the plants can soak up real sunlight.

The students also talked about the crops they grow, which thus far includes lettuce, kale, celery, string beans, cucumbers, mint, and basil. And they boasted about their abundant yields that have enabled them to provide the cafeteria with an ample amount of fresh foods. 

Sarah Hudgings, a Title 1 coordinator for Avon Grove School District, who had experience with hydroponics, wrote the grant for the project. She then helped the students to cultivate plants. She spoke during the presentation and said, “Hydroponic growing systems have a 30% greater yield than conventional gardens and help us grow food that is highly nutritious.”

Next, the students are going to try growing fruits, which they say are a little tricky to grow because fruit plants require pollination. But the students are experts on the topic of pollination too. They have devised a plan that involves use of electric toothbrushes to assist the plants’ pollination efforts. 

School board member Rick Dumont praised the children. “You really are great learners! You have become knowledgeable about science, nutrition, and teamwork,” he said.

That’s not all the students at Penn London have learned about. The project has enabled them to increase their physical activity, become whizzes at public speaking, and has informed them about environmental issues. Plus, the project has turned them into great purveyors of art and proponents of reading. 

Art came into play when last year’s first graders, after making plans to install a tower garden in an alcove in the back of school cafeteria, decided they would like a mural painted in the space as well. They solicited the help of Avon Grove High School art teacher Jennifer Martorello and members of that school’s Art Society, a group of students who volunteer their time and artistic talents to create artwork for meaningful projects. Martorello and Art Society members were excited to take on the project.

It was this year’s Penn London students who brought the cafeteria garden nook project to fruition. That hydroponic structure was installed this month, and the mural, too, was completed this month.

Art Society President Sabrina Lin described how the concept for the mural, which features vibrant whimsy-faced fruits and vegetables from floor to ceiling, was devised. She said that three art students submitted their concepts for the mural last year, and the Penn London students chose the present design from those submissions. The winning submission was created by Mariana Villagomez, then a high school senior, who has since graduated.

Helike Milestone, art historian for the Art Society, described the process of painting the mural. She said an old mural had to be covered up using primer, then the wall had to be measured to see how it would match up with a digital version of the artwork scheme. The digital version was then displayed via projector onto the wall so it could be traced. The painters started by painting solid colors on the fruits and vegetables, and then outlined the images in black and added details.

Reading came into play when the students recently decided to stock the cafeteria alcove with a cart full of books. Plans are underway to turn that section into a green-space reading area.

It is likely Penn London students will be invited back to participate in more school board meetings, because they ended their presentation by serving school board members, with the help of Anna Mayor from the Food Services Department, vibrant green salads brimming with lettuce, kale, green beans, and celery and topped with Italian dressing, along with bottles of water flavored with mint they grew. 

Said board member Ruchira Singh, “I wish we could have more presentations like this, where we get to eat!”