Hydroponics at Central, Growing tomatoes, lettuce year-round

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Josie Fettkether, Central FFA president, holds a tray of the growing medium used to raise lettuce and tomatoes indoors at the school.

By Pam Reinig
Register Editor

Long before area gardeners set the first tender vegetable plants into the ground, Central students will be enjoying fresh, vine-ripened tomatoes and leafy lettuce grown in a basement-level classroom. And they’ll continue harvesting and eating the veggies until the school year ends.

The students are growing tomatoes and lettuce using a mineral solution, in water, without soil as part of a project launched at the beginning of the school year. The process is known as hydroponics. Central instructor Jerry O’Brien, who is also the school’s FFA advisor, received a $2,700 federal grant to get the work started.

“The idea was to extend what we’re doing in the school garden into the classroom,” O’Brien explained. “We can grow vegetables here during the entire school year, maybe even supplement the school salad bar.”

In addition to providing fresh produce, the hydroponics system is a great teaching tool. The system arrived as a kit, which students helped assemble. Working under O’Brien’s close supervision, they planted seeds and now they’re monitoring nutrient and water levels in a series of 40-gallon buckets connected to the system.

“We had some problems at first with stem rot but we’ve got that under control now, and things are going more smoothly,” O’Brien said.

In addition to harvesting fresh produce out-of-season, hydroponics takes advantage of a plant’s ability to continually produce. For example, O’Brien noted that a tomato plant bears fruit for up to 18 months.

“We tend to forget that because we have to pulled them out of our gardens after a couple months,” he added. “But as long as these plants get light, water and nutrients, they just keep on going.”

Hydroponically grown vegetables tend to grow on an accelerated timetable, as well. In traditional gardening, vegetables develop a large root system as they search for food and water. However, in hydroponics, food and water are fed directly to the roots. This enables plants to grow twice as fast.

The hydroponics lab will be shut down over the summer break when O’Brien and his students are away from the building. It will be started up again when classes resume. O’Brien hopes he’ll be able to expand the effort in both the kinds of plants grown and the number of students who get exposed to the process.

“The kids have shown a lot of interest in it so it makes sense to keep it going,” O’Brien said.

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