Tending The Tower
Updated: Jun 1, 2019
Written by Caitlin Adams | Illustrated by Maddie Beck
A new method of gardening is spreading to classrooms around Oxford.
Tower gardens, the newest trend in classroom gardening, provide a clean, simple way to ensure children eat their vegetables. The vertical, aeroponic growing systems, placed in classrooms and cafeterias around town, allow schoolchildren not only to plant a garden but also to watch their bounty grow daily.
The push for tower gardens in schools came naturally to Tess Johnson, an Oxford parent who volunteers with Good Food for Oxford Schools and serves in FoodCorps, a nonprofit organization focused on connecting kids to healthy foods. Her initial interest in gardening grew when she became concerned about what her own three children were putting in their bodies.
“It’s important to teach kids at a young age about the nutritional value of food,” Johnson said.
After learning about tower gardens from a fellow mom, Johnson got to work adding a tower to one of her children’s classes at Bramlett Elementary School and hasn’t looked back since.
“I fell in love with them,” Johnson said. “It’s hard not to when you see the kids’ reactions and how attached they become to what they plant.”
The towers are part of the Juice Plus Company, for which Johnson is a distributor. The setup includes the tower, a growing light, dolly and everything needed to plant for a year. It costs just under $1,000.
Johnson said the towers are not intended to replace existing school gardens, but rather enhance the programs and use technology to show a different way to grow.
“The children get to experience the harvest and can connect to the nutritional value of what they are eating,” Johnson said.
This was a selling point for Kayla McIntyre, a kindergarten teacher at Bramlett, when one of her students’ mothers approached her about lending her a tower garden to add to her classroom. Bramlett already had a garden, but its outdoor location meant that after planting the seeds, students wouldn’t check on the plants for days at a time. They often missed learning opportunities that accompany the different stages of growth.
Having the towers within a few short steps of students’ desks instead meant the kids had a hands-on, tangible relationship with the plants.
“Every morning, when the students came in, it was the first thing they saw,” McIntyre said. “It got kids talking in the morning, which is hard to do.”
Johnson was pleased with the impact the garden had on her own daughter, Chloe, age 6. When asked the best part about having a tower garden in her class, Chloe said, “Getting to watch the baby seed grow.”
Towers stand just below six feet tall, include a 20-gallon reservoir and can hold up to 20 plants. There’s no soil involved, which means no pests or regular weeding. It’s an easy sell to teachers who already have their hands full in the classroom.
“The last thing we need is another mess,” McIntyre said, laughing.
In McIntyre’s class last spring, the children grew kale, spinach, lettuce, basil and chard. The benefits went beyond the plate as McIntyre incorporated the tower into her curriculum. Students maintained a tower journal where they measured plant growth with different manipulatives, and they used adjectives learned in their English unit to describe what they witnessed.
The students were in for a treat once the plants were ready to harvest. Parents joined in on the fun as the students cut lettuce and made their own salads.
“We put it in a bowl and that was it — it was ready,” McIntyre said. “It was truly from our tower garden.”
Her class used the leftover kale and spinach in green smoothies, and even made a homemade pesto out of the basil.
“Every child drank the smoothie, and every child ate the salad,” McIntyre said. “It was truly an incredible experience.”
The tower has since rotated out of McIntyre’s class, but she has seen a lasting impact. Students who once stuck to sweets and carbs reached for salads in the cafeteria long after the tower garden rotated out of their classroom.
This year the tower garden is housed in the cafeteria, and various classes have had a chance to plant in it. Greens from the tower garden have been harvested and served at lunch.
“It’s special for a child to know that the lettuce they’re eating on their tray was grown on the tower behind them,” McIntyre said. “Wouldn’t it be neat for every child to have that feeling?”
Johnson is trying to make that a reality and is in the process of writing a grant with Blue Cross Blue Shield that is intended to expand the garden program to ensure that more students get to experience tower gardening. She’d like to bring the gardens to each grade, but it will depend upon the outcome of the grant.
“I want tower gardens to be a tool to help and aid every child in every classroom to create a healthy lifestyle,” she said.
For more information on tower gardens, visit towergarden.com.