NMSU Helps Bring Hydroponic Gardens into Las Cruces Schools
Carlos Andres López, For the Sun-NewsPublished 11:17 a.m. MT Dec. 28, 2018 | Updated 12:35 p.m. MT Dec. 30, 2018
LAS CRUCES - Even as the days were colder last fall and winter, the tomato garden in Adrian Gaytan’s classroom at Zia Middle School in Las Cruces continued to thrive, a feat that would have been impossible more than a year ago but is now a reality – thanks to an initiative launched by New Mexico State University’s Cooperative Extension Service in Doña Ana County.
The initiative involves placing hydroponic plant systems in classrooms, which brings gardens indoors and eliminates the need for soil — the biggest challenge in school gardens. Hydroponic plant systems use water-based, nutrient-rich solutions to cultivate plants without the use of soil, resulting in better quality plants and higher yields, among other benefits.
In Gaytan’s classroom, the hydroponic plant system, at less than six feet in length, takes up minimal space and has been outfitted with overhead lights and an automatic timer, which enable it to operate on its own, a feature that allows for year-round gardening (even when students are out of school for extended periods of time).
Jeff Anderson, an agent for NMSU’s Cooperative Extension Service in Doña Ana County who specializes in agronomy and horticulture, believes hydroponic plant systems may be the answer in helping schools boost the number of gardens in classrooms.
“It’s hard to send teachers and students outside in the winter to pick weeds and water plants,” Anderson said, noting that conventional outdoor gardens in local schools have declined in recent years. “So, I thought to myself: How are we going to bring agriculture into the school system?”
The answer finally came to Anderson when gardeners began calling the Doña Ana County Extension Master Gardener Program to inquire about starting hydroponic plant systems in the Las Cruces area, he said. As Anderson researched the system, he determined it could a practical solution for school gardens — but only if he could develop a cost-effective system. He then turned his efforts to building an affordable structure.
By sourcing material locally, Anderson was able to build a system for just under $300.
“We were able to figure out the cost and developed the program from there,” he said.
A pilot system underwent testing for about a year at the Cooperative Extension Service office in Las Cruces before similar systems were constructed for five local middle schools — Lynn, Vista, Sierra Vista, Picacho and Zia — which began using the gardens at the start of the 2017-18 school year, with assistance from the Master Gardener Program.
Zia and Vista had very successful first years, Anderson said.
“When I heard there was going to be an opportunity to have a hydroponics system in my classroom, I said, ‘Yes,’” said Gaytan, a Project Lead the Way and Technology, or PLWY, teacher at Zia. “We got it, and I used it for sixth-graders. They were immediately hooked; every day they tended the garden, checking the water and testing the pH levels. They took complete ownership of it.”
Those students are now seventh-graders, Gaytan said, and continue to maintain the garden. This semester, they’re focused on growing tomatoes — the type that’s used to make ketchup. Last month, their tomato seedlings started to sprout, an indication the students were weeks away from enjoying fresh-from-the-vine tomatoes.
For Anderson, the gardens offer many opportunities for “direct teachable moments.”
“You can bring in science, technology, engineering and math,” he said, “and teach healthy eating, energy efficiency, energy use, water recycling and other life science skills.”
He added: “The schools have had successes and failures, all of which have provided valuable lessons. When you have a failure, the kids have to learn — why did we fail, why did the plants die? The kids have to do research and they have to apply that research to their garden.”
The students also become more caring individuals, Anderson said. “There’s a big thing about caring for a plant and that translates to caring for anything when you’re older,’ he said.
Now, Anderson said he is exploring ways in which to expand the program, not just throughout Las Cruces and Doña Ana County, but also statewide.
“We’re trying to get more of this type of agriculture in schools across the state,” he said.
To learn more about the program, visit https://aces.nmsu.edu/county/donaana/.