Hydroponics a hit at Dartmouth Middle School

Nov 19, 2019

Tomatoes, lettuce, swiss chard, and basil are among the plants grown by a group of intrepid middle schoolers for their cafeteria inside their cafeteria.

Instead of traditional gardening, the students are using a hydroponic system with timed lights and nutrient-rich water pumped through hoses to the top of each tower system, where it trickles down, feeding the plants.

Eighth grade science teacher Laurie Hellstrom leads the after-school program with Helen Mitchell at Dartmouth Middle School on Tuesday afternoons.

The club started last year with just one tower system, but this year they added two more — all built by the students themselves from kits and partly funded with a grant from the Dartmouth Education Foundation.

And the kids have already harvested their first large crop. “We harvested a lot,” Hellstrom said, noting that they collected six large bags of lettuce. “The towers are looking a little barren.”

On November 19, the students — from grades six through eight — harvested another bag of lettuce, planted seeds, and transplanted basil and lettuce seedlings into the towers. 

They also measured the pH of the water and added enough water and nutrients to run the system for another week. 

“It’s great,” said Hellstrom. “They’re learning sustainable practices, and they’re growing food for their peers. It’s pretty cool, because we harvest it, and it’s in the salad bar at school.”

“We should be able to harvest — I’m hoping, once we get our cycles down, like every other week,” she continued, noting that one of the benefits of the hydroponic system is that it isn’t weather dependent. “We can grow all winter long...And then we take it apart, we clean it up, and we bring it back out in September. So it’s really a nice solution.”

“We’re hoping to grow more things down the line, maybe cucumbers,” she added.

The kids — this year there are around ten or so, up from eight last year — seemed to be enjoying themselves.

“I find it really cool that we can make lettuce for the school and help out,” said seventh grader Abby Maxfield. “And it’s also a really cool thing to do.”

“Also, Mrs. Hellstrom makes us brownies,” added fellow seventh grader Eliza Corral.

Maxfield said that she most liked getting to meet new people. “Getting to hang out with everyone is cool too,” she said.

“I like harvesting,” said Corral. “It’s fun.”

“I garden with my grandmother, in her garden,” explained eighth grader Kenzie Almeida. “This is easier. I like it better...I don’t really like dirt!”

Some of the students — including Almeida — said they hoped to use their hydroponic experience at Bristol County Agricultural High School.

“The only reason I’m doing this is because I want to go to Bristol Aggie next year,” said eighth grader Aaron Corneille, who said he wanted a career in agriculture.

Hellstrom said that since the school doesn’t use fresh basil in the cafeteria, the club is planning a special project to use that when it’s harvested.

“We’re hoping to have a little pesto workshop,” she said. 

“I should have my grandmother come in, she makes the best pesto ever,” said Almeida.

Hellstrom smiled. “I don’t know,” she said. “You haven’t had mine!”