Gateway students sink their teeth into gardening program
Some Evergreen Elementary students had their own small feast the week before Thanksgiving.
The school recently bought an aeroponic tower used to teach students how to grow greens using air and water instead of messy soil.
“This is a completely different way to grow,” said Suzanne Kovak, a parent volunteer in Evergreen’s Learning Garden program.
After waiting for an eternal 18 days, the 9- and 10-year-old students were ready to sample the fruits of their labor. But really, there wasn’t all that much labor – or fruit – involved.
The aeroponic Tower Garden of leafy greens pumps water through a vertical “tower” to provide nutrients to seeds sowed in rockwool, a horticultural growing material commonly used with hydroponic systems.
“We refill the water once a week,” Kovak said, adding the ultraviolet lights are left on for 12 hours at a time.
The students placed seeds in the rockwool and transferred the seedlings into pockets located on the aeroponic tower. Under three weeks later, the plants were plentiful enough to feed the nearly 50 fourth-grade students.
On a cold and gray Tuesday the week before Thanksgiving, the students took turns plucking two varieties of leafy greens to place in a salad spinner before chomping down on their harvest.
The kids cautiously approached the plants as teacher Heather Ritter explained their choices as being kale, spinach and other spring mixes such as arugula.
The children formed lines to get their version of a house salad, adorned with cherry tomatoes and cucumber slices and topped with Italian dressing. The reactions varied, but most were positive.
“This tastes different than at home,” said Elliot Frischman, 9, who had almost finished hers. “This salad tasted more fresh.”
Gianna Matrazzo, 10, said she wanted more. This time, she wanted to try it without the dressing.
“I’ve never planted anything before. It’s amazing,” she said. “And it’s going to re-grow, and we get to do it again.”
Some students didn’t enjoy the green snack.
“It’s OK when it first goes in the mouth. But then it goes to the throat and – ugh!” Kendell Rickets, 9, said with a grimace.
Kovak has worked with Evergreen for around five years in the school’s garden program. When she started, the school had two raised beds on the property. Kovak said the beds needed some work to fend off critters but are now providing enough bounty to donate to local food banks.
The school received a grant from Grow Pittsburgh’s Learning Garden program in 2017, which allowed for installation of two additional raised garden beds atop a large asphalt space behind the school where they grow anything from potatoes to tomatoes to cucumbers.
The Learning Garden has been enfolded into the school’s curriculum. Now, students are directly involved in the planning and planting process each season.
“If kids have a hand in growing their food, they’re more willing to try stuff,” Kovac said.
She said the school’s garden program received another $1,000 grant from Phipps Conservatory’s Let Move Pittsburgh program in May to purchase the tower garden unit.
Ritter welcomes the opportunity for the year-round hands-on learning.
“The kids gasp when they see their plants and how much they’ve grown over the weekend. They’re invested in it,” Ritter said.
Kelly Taylor, 9, was in the pro-salad camp.
“I never thought I’d be able to grow my own salad,” she said.
Her only critique?
“I’ve never had Italian (dressing),” Taylor said. “I like Ranch.”
Dillon Carr is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Dillon at 412-871-2325, [email protected] or via Twitter @dillonswriting.