There are green things growing in a New Jersey public school, a small shift from the traditional farming that gives the “Garden State” its nickname. A newly installed lab within the school greenhouse will help teach a new crop of children to grow food without soil. Hydroponics brings far bigger benefits than keeping small hands dirt-free.
Hydroponics is the system of growing plants without soil, instead using liquid, sand, or gravel, packed with extra nutrients. The hydroponic lab at Watchung Primary School will experiment with two techniques. One is called nutrient film technique (NFT) where a shallow stream of nutrient-rich water flows past the bare roots of plants in a watertight thick root mat. This is where leafy plants such as spinach and kale will be grown. The other is a Dutch bucket system where plants grow inside pails, drip-fed nutrients, where liquid drains through the bucket into a common drain tube. Vine-based plants will be grown in the containers, including tomatoes and squash.
Watchung School Parent Teacher Association (PTA) president Ofira Bondorowsky spearheaded the project. In an interview with the Montclair Times, she said the idea for a hydroponics lab arose last summer during discussions about new learning initiatives.
Montclair is a Manhattan suburb where primary education is taught at “magnet schools”, each with a specific focus supported by programs bespoke to that school. The international school holds a pee-wee model United Nations. The fine arts school places emphasis on performing arts.
“We are the science and technology school. We wanted to do something that was cutting-edge…that would clearly have added educational value,” said Bondorowsky. Once PTA members agreed to create a hydroponics system at the school, the next step was to find a teacher who could teach how to run it . Enter science teacher Amy Armstrong.
“There are sustainability issues that I am teaching the kids about,” Armstrong said. “We have an outdoor traditional soil garden, but now I can grow plants with them all year-long and be able to do so much more hands-on.”
The school turned to New York Sun Works, a nonprofit dedicated to hydroponic education, for layout design and construction. The company also provides a teaching curriculum and ongoing support. Total costs for consultancy and construction came to about $21,000, funds raised by the PTA.
As the system matures, along with students skills, the farm can incorporate other components such as an aquaponics system that enables water used in fishtanks to be reused as a plant nutrient. Supporting technology is also fast coming online – such as flux – a consumer device and operating system allowing anyone, including those without prior experience, to successfully farm using water alone.
Success at Watchung will likely see the program rolled out to other area schools. New Jersey is jumping on hydroponics in a big way, with a two-day workshop held by hydroponics experts American Hydroponics.
Cropking, a family business building hydroponics farms since 1982, also offers courses, and gives them country-wide. Read here to find a hydroponics course near you.
Want to know more about this farming method that’s starting to feed men in space? If you are stateside, contact our friend Henry in New York to custom-build you a hydroponics farm or workshop.
Gardeners and farmers in water-starved Middle East know that hydroponics is a great solution for farming in desert climates. Search the Green Prophet archives for our many stories on this technique. And do drop us a line to tell us about your own experiences with hydroponics.
Photo of Amy Armstrong, left, and Ofira Bondorowsky by Ricardo Kaulessar/Montclair Times