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Interlochen Elementary School Starts Library Hydro-FarmPrint

Food & Farming | December 11, 2012 | By Kirsten Gerbatsch

Mike McHugh, of Cedar Sol Hydro Farm, teaches students at Interlochen Elementary School about hydroponic gardens. 

As we looked out the library windows of Interlochen Elementary School, two classes of second and third graders and I could see a thin, fresh blanket of snow across the school grounds. It was the end of November. The air temperature outside was freezing. The raised garden beds were white and still, and we knew nothing would grow outside for months.

But it was a different story inside the library. With the flick of a switch, we heard the steady whir of an electric motor and a whoosh of water circulating through three large hydroponic “grow systems.” These were the sounds of life: A winter indoor school garden. By noon on Tuesday, November 27th, Jill Hibbard’s 2nd grade and Rhonda Busch’s 3rd grade classes transplanted and seeded a variety of herbs, leafy greens, lettuce, and peas in their very own library window hydro-farm.

Hydroponic farmers grow plants without soil, but instead, in water with minerals mixed in that are taken up by the plants’ roots for nutrients—the H in H2O and hydro. And because this Hydro-stacker system can be placed in a school library, it means students at all grade levels at Interlochen Elementary will learn about growing food in the depths of a Michigan winter.

Farmer Mike McHugh, of Cedar Sol Hydro Farm, partnered with Interlochen teachers, my FoodCorps service member partner Daniel Marbury and me to get the hydroponic garden system in place. Mike and his wife Nichole grow outdoor hydroponic strawberries, tomatoes, herbs, and a variety of vegetables in Leelanau County.

Daniel and I are organizing garden, classroom, and cafeteria activities that get kids excited about eating fresh and locally grown food. When Mike visited their library and showed them how we can grow food without soil, the kids were wide-eyed and full of questions. They studied his every movement as he demonstrated how to plant in the Hydro-stacker containers and they asked thoughtful questions throughout the process. The kids could barely stay in their seats by the end of the demonstration; they were ready to transplant their own plants, which they had started from tiny seeds in October. In small groups, each student carefully planted a container until the four Hydro-stackers were filled.

Our garden plan is to harvest, cook with and serve the herbs, kale, lettuce, and rainbow Swiss chard in the classroom and lunchroom for tasting activities that engage the children in healthy foods education. Trying these nutritious greens also will reinforce the local, healthy foods education that Daniel and I coordinate in the cafeteria during lunchtime with the school food service staff. We hope that growing vegetables inside with a hydroponic garden will whet students’ appetites for more garden exploration at school and lead to more fresh greens on their lunch trays.

Some of the kids were so excited to taste the kale and rainbow Swiss chard they’re cultivating in the Hydro-stackers that they asked if they could eat their seedlings on planting day! But we decided it would be best to let the plants grow even bigger so we can share a really big harvest in December.

Needless to say, everyone is looking forward to our first harvest this winter! And we expect it will get everyone excited about revitalizing the outside school garden come spring, when the green returns and the sounds of chickadees and bluejays—and maybe a sprinkler—fill the air.

I’d like to extend a huge thank you to Mike McHugh, of Cedar Sol Farm, for his guidance and support on this school garden project, as well as to the dedicated teachers and staff at Interlochen Elemenentary who encourage school gardens and healthy food education for our students!