Belding Elementary students have been growing and harvesting bok choy, bib lettuce, rainbow chard, and more, all right inside their classrooms.
Six classrooms at the Old Irving Park school each hold a tower garden—a gardening approach that uses less water and space than traditional gardens. The aeroponic gardens grow plants without soil, using only air and mist. Students harvest three times a year. The next one is scheduled to happen toward the end of April.
The first two towers were donated to the school by a former parent, Courtney Currie, who worked for the company Juice Plus, nearly four years ago. When she and her family moved out of state, another parent took over the new project.
Both parents are friends and their children were in the same class, said Dee Barrett, who now manages the tower gardens and works closely with students.
Ms. Barret, a mother of three girls, said she works from home so she had the flexibility to step in. She also didn’t want to see this project leave with her friend, she explained.
“When I came in and saw [everything] the teachers had on their plate, I knew that taking care of these towers was just a lot to ask them to do,” Barrett said. “I really wanted to make this less work for the teachers and just more fun.”
They began to receive more over time. Towers three and four were purchased through a Donors Choose grant. The fifth was a private donation. The sixth was won through a contest with the Chicago Blackhawks and the school just received its seventh earlier this month through a private donor.
Students have been learning about plants and even how to test the pH of water. There’s a lot of inquiry and problem solving involved in the curriculum, Barrett said. Students try to figure out why certain plants aren’t growing.
Kindergarteners have planted spinach and other herbs. A group of third-graders have planted arugula, mini sweet peppers, and tomatoes. The 7th and 8th grade classes have been learning about fertilization and pollination.
“We don’t have bees and butterflies to do it so the kids get their little paint brushes and they move the pollen from one flower to the next flower to fertilize it,” Barrett said.
Eighth-grader Audruy Magnus, 14, said it’s a simple process.
“We have to take paint brushes and put them by the roots of the plant so they can grow. It’s not hard.”
Sarah Sabo teaches environmental science and said that the hands on experience reaches the students a lot more than just the textbook.
“It’s also just really cool to be hands on, but the kids actually do the grunt work too,” she said. “They clean out the tower, trim the plants, throw away the dead pieces. They’re doing the heavy lifting.”
Two of her students said they weren’t familiar with the way a tower garden worked, but that they’re learning from the experience.
“It’s a usual garden, just vertical and the stuff grows out the cube,” said 14-year-old Alex Santiago, an eighth-grader. “It looks cool, like a decoration, but you can actually eat the food out of there.”
Classmate Mindy Phan said it took awhile for the vegetables to grow.
“When we first [planted] it didn’t look anything like a garden, but it eventually everything grew into a nice garden,” said the 13-year-old.
Students are also being introduced to new healthy foods, Barrett said. A group of third-graders, one being her daughter, excitedly pointed out what they planted and have already tasted.
“Arugula is spicy,” said one little boy.
Barrett said that the goal is to bring in more tower gardens, start a farmers market run by students, and donate more crops to a local food pantry.
“We really want to get the kids connected to the community,” she said.
The school also expanded its International Baccalaureate Program earlier this month for 6th-8th grade to connect with their IB partner high school Schurz, which has a food science lab.
“The students who have been farming here since kindergarten will now have the opportunity to continue their farming there,” Barrett said. “You want them excited about taking what they learned at Belding and then bringing it with them to the high school. I’m a huge supporter of that.”