While some area gardeners are already enjoying items from the home garden, students in the agriculture education program at Arlington High School are just getting started with the growing process.

As the 2019-20 school year began, so did the introduction of a new unit in Jill Hensley's plant science class.

Thanks to a grant from Monsanto, which was directed to the school at the request of Ben and Kylie Wilkins, students will get an up-close and personal look at the growing process right in their own classroom with the help of two tower gardens.

Tower gardens are an indoor, aeroponic, vertical method of growing garden products such as leafy green vegetables. Henseley said it's a great space-efficient way of growing items inside.

"There's a lot of FFA chapters in the state using them, so I had talked with other teachers," she said. "Then, we learned more about it at the state FFA convention."

AHS juniors Zaena Stork and Jake Bartosh, said the towers are a welcome addition to plant science class.

Bartosh said they have already sparked interest in the school's FFA program.

"I feel like if you are walking by in the hallway and you see a huge tower with lights and plants in it, you wonder what it is," he said. "It sparks curiosity, so I think that's really good for it."

It also gives students another hands-on way of learning.

"You only get so many hands-on classes and this is a great one to have because we are not taking a written example very single week," Stork said. "It's probably one of my favorite classes. I think it's really fun and hands on."

On Friday, Bartosh and Stork did pH level tests on the water in each garden, with Hensley guiding them through the process when the test determined they weren't at the correct levels. Hensley anticipates students will do the pH testing once a week.

Stork, too, likes the hands-on aspect of the class and likes having the tower gardens.

"It's something you've never really seen before," she said, noting another upside to working with the tower gardens.

"You are not having to pull weeds."

Hensley said she likes the tower gardens because it exposes her students to alternative methods of agriculture.

As part of the aeroponic method of growing, Hensely said there's a submersible pump that turns on every 15 minutes and it sends the water up and rains down on the plant's roots.

"We see traditional farming around here, but this is an alternative method of growing fresh produce," she said.

Bartosh predicts the tower gardens will become more popular, especially with future urbanization in some areas.

"If you are in a big city, there isn't going to be much room for gardening, so I feel like these towers are going to be a lot more common than they already are,” he said.

Hensley said tower gardens are user friendly, which she likes.

Though they are just getting started, Stork and Bartosh are happy with the chance to work with the tower gardens.

So far, there are lettuce, basil, dill weed, lavender, cilantro and chive plants growing in the towers.

"We are trying everything to begin with, but as the semester goes on, we'll see what they like and what they want to keep doing."

Leafy greens work best, Hensley said. Tomato and cucumber plants are possible, but she said those are best grown outside.

With the towers in place and the plants starting to grow, Hensley said she'll soon begin more lessons.

"We will have a unit entirely devoted to plant development and we'll use the tower gardens as a case study," she said.

She also has big picture goals for the tower gardens, such as harvesting the fresh produce and donating it to a local food pantry.

"I would also like to partner with an elementary classroom to teach younger students about where their food comes from and how they can grow fresh and healthy produces," she said.

As with anything in agriculture, Hensley expects there to be challenges.

"There could be bugs or water chemical problems," she said. "But, we will encounter them as they come and teach students about how to problem solve."

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