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Marble Falls Elementary students growing their veggies in the air

DANIEL CLIFTON • PICAYUNE EDITOR

MARBLE FALLS — Marble Falls Elementary School students are getting a taste of space station technology thanks to the three Tower Gardens located in a corner of the school cafeteria.

“What they do is allow you to grow vegetables for taste and nutrition,” said Jim Trial, a distributor of the aeroponic system. “In Brady (Independent School District), they’re noticing the students involved in the (Tower Gardens) program are the first to reach for salads during lunch.”

The towers, which utilize a unique mix of plant food, light, water and air, provide students with not only the possibility of fresh vegetables for lunch but a science lesson in action.

“It’s a wonderful learning experience for the kids,” said Susan Nye, a Highland Lakes Master Gardener and a retired school librarian. She helped bring the three Tower Gardens to the campus after seeing them last spring at the Highland Lakes Lawn and Garden Show in Burnet. “The students get to learn about the science of plant growth, but they also get to see it happening. It’s right here in front of them.”

After seeing the Tower Gardens during the show last spring and studying the concept, she approached the Highland Lakes Master Gardeners about supporting an endeavor to bring the aeroponic system to the school. The campus garden committee also got behind the idea.

A Legacy Fund teacher grant funded the project.

International renowned horticulturist Tim Blank invented the Tower Garden. It’s even used on the International Space Station. But the towers are finding enthusiasts across the country who crave healthy, fresh vegetables year-round. The Chicago O’Hare International Airport has more than 20 Tower Gardens. The produce goes to nearby restaurants for their meals as well as being sold at a regular farmers’ market.

Brady ISD has several in a greenhouse. Now, many of the fresh vegetables students find on their lunch tray or in the salad bar come from those towers. The district is already enjoying its fifth harvest from vegetables planted when school started.

Trial admitted his apprehension about vegetables grown in such a system. He even shared his concerns with the person who initially tried to sell him on the concept.

“I told him I’ve had your hydroponic tomatoes before, and they taste about as good as my credit card,” Trial said.

But after trying the vegetables himself and looking into this specific aeroponic (not the same as hydroponic) method, he became a convert.

Trial explained the difference really comes down to the Tower Garden-specific nutrients, which deliver the correct amount of minerals into the plants’ roots via the internal water system. The water is just the delivery mechanism; the plants don’t grow in it like hydroponics. The plants basically hang in the air through the small openings in the tower.

“There’s not actual growing medium such as soil,” Trial said. “So you also don’t have the competing weeds or many of the pests you usually have. Sometimes, you might get aphids, but you don’t get many others.”

The growth is fast and abundant.

The three Marble Falls Elementary School towers haven’t been as productive as others, but Trial pointed out their location in the cafeteria doesn’t have the best light. He recommended a couple of grow lights would have the school’s Tower Gardens bursting with vegetables.

“Overall, it’s fairly simple,” he said. “You just have to make sure there’s enough water in the tank, check the pH level and add nutrients when necessary.”

Nye agreed.

“I was surprised how easy it really is,” she said.

Though the cafeteria lighting isn’t the best for plant growth, Nye said placing the towers where the students see them on a regular basis encourages their interest and involvement.

“Hopefully soon, they’ll be finding the vegetables they grow in the cafeteria,” she said.

Go to www.jimtrial.towergardens.com for more information. You can also call the school at (830) 693-2385 to get involved in the campus garden project.

daniel@thepicayune.com