A small experiment to demonstrate how roots sprout from vegetables immersed in water has grown into a much larger project -- a Sickles High garden planted and tended by the school’s special education students.
The schoolyard garden that produces everything from lettuce and tomatoes to cauliflower and banana peppers recently received a $500 grant administered by Gainesville-based Florida Agriculture in the Classroom, a nonprofit charged with helping teachers educate students about the state’s agricultural industry.
To help the two classes of 11 students each increase the yield of their garden between two wings of the school, the father of one student built and donated a hydroponic system that helps grow strawberries and more.
The effort had humble beginnings. “We did a project in class at the beginning of the year with potatoes and carrots, where were cut them in half and put them in cup of water with rocks and started watching the new roots form,” said one of the special education instructors, Pat O’Brien.
When the experiment was concluded, the organic matter was deposited in a small campus garden dotted with flowers. “We dumped them out on the ground, and the next thing you know, the potatoes started growing,” said O’ Brien, Sickles’ former football coach.
“We got into the nutrition part of our health class and started talking about healthy foods” and decided to start a “bag garden,” providing each student with a bag of garden soil donated by the nearby Ace Hardware store. O’Brien said.
O’Brien’s fellow instructor, Sarann Verleni, spent a weekend filling out paperwork for the Florida Agriculture in the Classroom mini-grant made possible by The Mosaic Co. Foundation.
“It’s not just about the garden; it’s about kids learning, too,” she said of the “Gardening for Grades” program. “There’s a lot of testing, a lot of research,” lesson plans and more in the 142-page teachers’ guide.
“It all just started with the health and nutrition class,” O’Brien said, but came to include everything from the history of Florida agriculture to mapping out the plot and the science of dealing with insects and other garden pests.
Plans for the grant money include buying a small pump connected to a 55-gallon drum to eliminate hand-watering the hydroponic plants.
Martin Hodges, whose daughter, Jordan, 17, is in the class, erected 20 posts, or “trees,” in the schoolyard garden. “A post will hold 48 strawberry plants,” he said. “But you can put other things in them besides strawberries,” from zucchini to carrots.
“You really maximize your growing space by going vertical,” but it also makes harvesting easier, said Hodges, who raises hydroponic vegetables in the greenhouse at his home near the school. “You can spin the ‘tree’ around,” plus there’s no need to get on the ground on hands and knees.